From concerts to cup finals and ceremonial occasions, live events are increasingly important to broadcasters. Tim Dams reports
If you want proof of the power of live events, just look at the ratings. Two of last year’s most watched programmes were live events: the One Love Manchester concert and the New Year Fireworks, which attracted 11.63m and 10.4m viewers respectively.
Until this month, the Royal wedding was the top rating programme of the year with 13.1m viewers on BBC1. That was suprassed by England’s World Cup game against Panama last week, which peaked at 14.1m viewers – with another 2.8m watching live on BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website.
At a time when ratings hover around the 2-3m mark for shows on big channels, the power of live events to punch through a crowded broadcasting landscape is undisputed.
The rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime is changing the dynamics of live events compared to pre-recorded shows, according to Malcolm Gerrie, chief executive of Whizz Kid Entertainment, which produces the BAFTA Film Awards for BBC1. “One of the ways to compete with them is in the live arena. The change in the broadcasting landscape has given the live event space a real dose of vitamin C.”
Gerrie is surprised some terrestrial broadcasters haven’t pushed harder into the live events space. “Live events, concerts, awards shows and sport attract considerable numbers. Their ability to cut through the clutter on all the other digital channels is massive.”
“Across the industry, there is definitely more of an appetite for live events, particularly unifying moments that bring the nation together,” confirms Claire Popplewell, executive producer at the BBC’s Ceremonial Events team, which produced the Royal Wedding and the New Year’s Fireworks.
This is also driving innovation, to make live events stand out even more. This summer, for example, Sky is broadcasting the Isle of White Festival in UHD and Dolby Atmos sound – the first music event to do so, according to Jason Hocking, the managing director of CC-Lab, which is producing the coverage.
With archive in mind, the BBC Events team produced the Royal Wedding in UHD HDR – its first live outside broadcast in the format (the BBC could not broadcast it in UHD, but the UHD pictures were made available to Sky). “It’s ultimately a moment in history, so we are trying to capture it in the best way we can,” says Popplewell.
Sport’s ability to punch through has, of course, long been recognised. And broadcasters have long been prepared to pay handsomely to show it. Earlier this year, the Premier League sold the rights to 2019-2022 games for £4.5bn to Sky and BT Sports with two live packages still on the table.
“When it is done right, live sport can be a total battering ram in terms of audiences, whatever platform you happen to be on,” says Neil Duncanson, the CEO of North One Television, which produces coverage of Moto GP and Formula E.
The sports market has changed significantly for producers in recent years. As yet, the market has not been disrupted like the drama, entertainment and factual genres by the streamers, although producers expect this to happen in the next five years. Amazon, for example, is dipping its toes into sport, taking UK rights to the ATP World Tour from Sky.
The volume of sports production has also risen. “A multi-sport event now isn’t just one channel showing the best of the action, it is one channel plus individual channels, a red button or online offering,” says David Tippett, head of broadcast at Sunset+Vine, which produces Premier League football and Premiership rugby for BT Sport.
IMG Production, for example, now has almost 50 people in its digital team. “That is definitely going to increase in the short term,” says Graham Fry, the md of sports production worldwide at IMG, which produces the world feed for the Premier League.
Live and kicking
The demand is very much for live sport too, says Fry. Highlights and compilation shows are less popular now, given audiences can see goal replays almost instantaneously on mobile devices. Fry has noticed that there is less demand for sports documentaries too. “It’s all about the live,” he says.
Meanwhile, leading sports broadcasters like Sky and BT Sport superserve their audiences with sport to attract – and keep – subscribers. North One’s Duncanson cites his company’s coverage of MotoGP for BT Sport, which moved over from the BBC in 2104. “Before BT got the rights, you were very lucky if you saw the podium of a race. Now we are doing three days of coverage for seven hours a day. You can see every practice session, every qualifier, every race – and not just for MotoGP, but for Moto2 and Moto3.”
Many more sports are being produced too. The Paralympics, for example, are covered much more widely than they used to be, while women’s football is growing in popularity. Meanwhile, minority sports that previously had little chance of being seen on TV can now be viewed on dedicated streaming platforms.
One of the other big changes in the sports market, says IMG’s Graham Fry, is that federations are now working directly with production companies to produce their own content, often for streaming platforms.
Many federations are doing to so raise the profile, and ultimately revenues, for their sport. It’s proving a popular route for smaller sports if they are unable to interest a broadcaster to take on the rights. “They can stream it on a website, bringing in a production company to cover an event for a fraction of the price than it used to cost with a traditional OB,” says Fry.
“Working with rights holders is a real growth area,” confirms Mark Cole, head of television at Whisper Films, which produces C4’s Formula One and Winter Paralympic Games coverage.
Major federations are working directly with producers too. Sunset + Vine’s David Tippett says: “The client is often now different. Broadcasters are still major clients, but we are seeing the emergence of rights owners themselves as clients.”
Sunset + Vine produces the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s coverage for competitions like the Cricket World Cup and T20. “It’s a fundamental shift in the model,” says Tippett. “It allows the ICC to have greater input into coverage, to control the quality of the coverage and to cover events that local broadcasters weren’t always able to.”
Other federations, such as The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), which runs Wimbledon, have taken coverage in house. For the first time, Wimbledon Broadcasting Services (WBS) will have full control over the TV cameras and broadcast output worldwide for this summer’s competition.
The BBC retains the live UK broadcast rights, and will work closely with WBS on its domestic coverage, but final decisions will now lie with the AELTC which can tailor the content to a global audience. It’s reflective of trends across the sport industry for rights holders to take greater control of their own content.
With so much sport now available, audiences are getting wise to what is properly produced and what is not. Many of the top sports are produced incredibly well. Sky and BT are lauded for the quality of their football coverage. Sky’s cricket and golf is also of a very high standard, as is BT’s rugby coverage.
Below some of these top tier sports, budgets are spread extremely thinly. “There’s a proliferation of live events across all the platforms, but there’s an increase in people trying to do it cheaply too,” says North One’s Neil Duncanson.
Even for some of the big sports, budgets can be an issue. For example, broadcasters may have spent millions to acquire the rights, leaving little left over for production – despite broadcasters wanting ever more content.
IMG’s Graham Fry says: “Broadcasters want a lot more for a lot less money, and as a consequence margins are being squeezed in a pretty big way. All broadcasters are having to pay more for their rights, leaving less for production.” Fry estimates that broadcasters are paying 10-15% less than they were two or three years ago.
For this reason some producers argue that it is sometimes better to work directly for federations rather than broadcasters, as federations want their sport to be produced in the best way possible.
Several new ways are emerging, however, for producers and broadcasters to save money creating live sports content.
One of the most significant is the development of remote production. For the recent Commonwealth Games in Australia and the Winter Olympics in South Korea, the BBC remotely produced much of the content from its facilities in Salford.
It meant the BBC took fewer of the production team to the events, saving on travel and hotel costs. The presenters were based in a Salford studio, which was dressed to suit each event. The gallery taking the host broadcast feeds direct from the events was also in Salford, as was post production.
“We do have reduced budgets, so we have got to look at efficiencies and how we can deliver sport in a way that the viewer doesn’t notice so much if the budget is cut back,” says Jonny Bramley, executive producer for major events at BBC Sport.
The BBC is now weighing up the viability of remotely producing the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
The Olympics, of course, are on a completely different scale to the Commonwealth Games. Audience figures will be much higher, and so too will be budgets. The bigger scale of the Olympics makes remote production more challenging. There were 55 host feeds from the Rio Olympics, and there will be more from Tokyo as new sports such as surfing and karate have been added to the line-up.
“If noticeable savings can be made, we have to consider it,” says Bramley, who says that he prefers the team to be together if possible, for a number of reasons. Face to face communication is easier, particularly between the presenter and the editor, and the gallery and the production team.
Whisper Films also remotely produced content for Channel 4’s coverage of the Winter Paralympic Games. Feeds were brought into a gallery in Ealing Studios, run by Timeline Television, while a peak time highlights show was presented from The Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead.
Mark Cole says around 80 people were working on Whisper’s Winter Paralympic coverage: 20 in Korea, 30 in Ealing and 30 in Hemel Hempstead. “Remote production definitely changes budgets. Technically it works well, but you do lose a little in terms of the relationship between producers and presenters.”
IMG also believes that remote production has a strong future. ATP Media has remotely produced its tennis coverage from IMG’s Stockley Park studios in West London for over a year. As a test, IMG has also covered a Premier League game remotely from Stockley Park, bringing all the camera feeds back to the studio and cutting it as a live match with the director in the gallery.
“It worked perfectly well,” says David Shield, SVP global director of engineering and technology at IMG. “I can easily see football matches in the future being covered remotely.” The cost savings can be considerable, he notes, particularly if one crew can cover two matches in one day from the studio. “You are saving on one complete production crew at a game, and all the travel and accommodation that goes with it.”
“From 2020 onwards, I think there’s every chance we will be cutting more sports events remotely here at Stockley Park.”
Meanwhile, the sheer volume of sport available means that producers must work harder to make it stand out. “Thinking differently about how you deliver live events is becoming ever more crucial,” says Whisper Films’ Mark Cole. “Simply sitting in a studio and linking to a bit of live sport is not enough.”
Cole adds: “When you are doing a big live event for a broadcaster, there’s more emphasis on taking it to the next level and being more creative. Otherwise, the broadcaster could just put a couple of cameras there and stream it on Facebook – and save an awful lot of money.”
He cites Whisper’s coverage of the Paralympic Winter Games. As well as pundits in the studio, it featured former Paralympic athletes demonstrating what the challenges were for some of the competitors, such as visually impaired skiers.
4k and HDR moves
Tech advances are also helping sports – and all live events – to stand out. 4K is slowly gaining traction in the industry, with BT Sport pioneering the format three years ago.
But the complexity, signal size and the challenge of delivering 4K has held it back. This year, Wimbledon will be available in 4K – but only on the BBC iPlayer. The 2020 Olympics will be filmed in 4K, which is sure to drive take up of the format. “It’s not quite there yet for sport,” says Mark Cole. But I do think it will punch through in the way that HD did.”
IMG’s David Shield is a fan of HDR, while recognizing that demand for 4K is growing. “Everybody will be able to recognize a TV that shows HDR…it has a much bigger wow factor than 4K.”
Others play down the significance of the 4K vs HDR debate. Sunset + Vine’s David Tippett says: “If I’m honest, we aren’t massively concerned with 4K or HDR, because ultimately the decisions with those lie with the client. 4K is just more pixels, and HDR is more vibrant colour essentially. It’s often driven by the manufacturers to sell more equipment. Without doubt, it improves viewer satisfaction. What we try to focus on more is production tools which help tell the story better or are game changers in terms of the coverage of sport.”
Cameras are a particular focus. He cites the Antelope PICO Extreme Slow Motion cameras used for Sunset + Vine’s host broadcast coverage of the London 2017 Athletics World Championships. “They offered lovely replay shots, particularly for field events like high jump, long jump and the throws.” Sunset + Vine also developed rail cameras with extreme slow motion options too, alongside normal cameras.
Technology is also important for North One’s Formula E host broadcast coverage. For a recent Rome event, it took 30 circuit cameras, 40 on board cameras, a cable camera, hele tele, a race control spy cam and five feature cameras – and a crew of 145. Its CamCat cable camera can move at speeds of 100mph, while North One is experimenting with kit that can measure the stress levels on team bosses in real time.
But it is easy to get carried away with the tech, says North One’s Neil Duncanson. “A bigger deal than anyone piece of tech is how you tell the story. If there is one mantra that has been drilled in to me, it’s that if you can tell a story simply, with good people in an entertaining way, then you are more than half way there.”
The Royal wedding
It’s true for non-sports live events too. Storytelling is becoming more and more important, confirms BBC Events executive producer Claire Popplewell. “You can have all the technology in the world, the greatest camera angles and beautiful sound, but if your narrative and your story isn’t there, you haven’t got anything.”
She says that, over the years, technology has become more discreet – particularly the size of cameras – allowing big events to be covered in a more intimate way. That’s especially important when filming events like the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The majority of the cameras at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle were remote cameras.
“Ultimately, it is somebody’s wedding day, so as much as it is the biggest TV event of the year, it is about two people declaring their love for each other. The way you plan and shoot it is hopefully sympathetic and not too intrusive.”
The BBC events team started planning for the wedding coverage in January. “The first thing is to get everybody on the same side and going in the same direction, whether that is talking to the royal household, or the team at Windsor Castle or St George’s Chapel or the Royal Parks in London,” says Popplewell. “So much is down to relationships and trust.”
The BBC then agreed a camera plan with the royal household and the chapel, and provided the host broadcast from inside the Castle and the Chapel, while coverage in the town was a pooled operation with ITN and Sky. “The most important people are the bride and groom, then the family and their guest. Ideally you don’t want people to notice you are there. If they are having a good time and relax, the atmosphere is much better and the event will go better too.”
Although not quite on the scale of a Royal wedding, the demands of producing a live music event are high.
CC-Labs’s Jason Hocking reckons they can be more demanding than sports events. He cites the Isle of White Festival, which it produced in UHD for Sky Arts last year. For a start there are two stages, one with 10-12 cameras, the other with 6-8 cameras. There are also presentation areas to film, an acoustic set and also crews roaming on site.
“If you add all that together, it’s quite a workflow challenge, because UHD has so much more data,” says Hocking. Pre-planning and flexibility on the ground are crucial he adds, especially when producing eight hours of coverage a day.
This summer CC-Labs is producing the Isle of White Festival in UHD and Dolby Atmos. The challenge of capturing high quality audio is “a head scratching conundrum” says Hocking. It’s not just a technical challenge. Bands are often more concerned about audio than video quality, so artists and their management get involved in the approvals process too.
Beyond music and ceremonial, there is a growing demand for live entertainment ‘events’ too. Whizz Kid’s Malcolm Gerrie cites ITV’s success with shows like The Real Full Monty. “You’re going to see more and more of this, because there seems to be a fatigue with a lot of traditional entertainment shows. But if you can wrap them into an event, and really make an appointment to view, you get more bang for your buck.”