A force to be reckoned with: Gravity Media thinks outside the box
Gravity Media is a fairly recent rebrand of a group of companies with a long-standing pedigree in sports coverage. Formally launched in 2019, it comprises the former Input Media, Gearhouse Broadcast and HyperActive Broadcast in Europe, along with Chief Entertainment in Australia. Privately owned and headquartered in the UK, but with a globally dispersed management team, the original company was founded by John Newton, who is Gravity Media’s major shareholder and CEO.
So how was running a global company as different nations and states followed each other into lockdown across the world due to COVID-19? “Our business has got many levels to it, but our projects businesses is very venue focused,” Newton tells SVG. “Last March, those parts of the business literally ceased. They’ve slowly come back. We’re certainly not where we would have expected to be this time if there wasn’t a pandemic, but we have made good recovery.
“Certain areas of our business have been affected more than others, with the sports venue business affected the hardest. The post production business had a bit of a lag. Our production centres, where we’ve got studios and playout, have been quite resilient. Chiswick produces a lot of sports for UEFA and the FA. We manage their archive, so we were repurposing that for the ‘Best of…’ programming, so they’ve held up pretty well.
“But if you spin back 12 months, things that wouldn’t have been acceptable to go on live TV then are now acceptable, such as a Zoom call. Budgets have become compressed so people are having to deliver products for less money, therefore they’re looking at alternative solutions.”
One such example of alternative thinking is how Gravity handled the Supercars championship, which normally encompasses 15 races that take place in Australia. Gravity Media has been the Supercars Broadcast Services & Facilities partner for the past eight years and the Supercars Technology partner since 2020. However the pandemic slammed the brakes on.
“You couldn’t race, because everything was locked down,” says Newton. “Instead we did virtual racing: the Supercars eSeries. Instead of 26 drivers being in 26 real cars racing around a track, they were in simulators in their homes dotted around Australia. A lot of esports, such as Formula 1, tend to use a gaming engine such as PlayStation or an XBox, but this is actually driving a race car simulator, with a chair with the steering wheel and everything. It’s supposed to react slightly differently to a conventional gaming engine and the parameters of the driving experience are supposed to be more in tune.”
“We brought all the 26 feeds back into our studio where we had a presentation team,” he continues. “We had an adjudication team and a commentary team in different places in Australia. We knitted this show together and it actually looked like real racing. The commentators didn’t sound like kids commenting on a game, it was like Murray Walker commentating on Formula One.”
The simulation allows crashes to be more dramatic than the real world, something that initially caused the professional racing drivers taking part much amusement.
“The drivers were pushing themselves because they couldn’t get injured, whereas in a real car when you crash, you risk damaging the car and yourself. They had to reset their thinking to try and be competitive,” says Newton.
“This thing took off around the world,” he continues. “When it first started out we thought it would get an audience of a couple of hundred thousand. Then it went on to Twitch and on to Facebook Live, and we were seeing around four million people watching it, which is quite astounding, because the motorsport audience [in Australia] on a really big race is around 500,000. Then we had Formula One drivers like Max Verstappen come on to race.”
Sponsorship followed. Rather than the seeing the drivers in their lounges, it moved on to being branded. “[Sponsors] started to take it quite seriously because they saw that the audience was huge.
“It’s a great example of finding another way of trying to produce programming, even if you’re restricted by such things as the pandemic,” he adds.
This year Gravity Media is producing 12 real races and 10 virtual races for Supercars as part of the Supercars Pro eSeries. The host and talent were based at the Fox Sports studio in Melbourne and were connected to one of the control rooms at Gravity Media’s Production Centre in Sydney. All cameras, audio and video feeds were transmitted between the two sites via high-speed internet on dedicated private circuits, to maintain security and integrity.
The Production Centre in Sydney also supplied supportive engineering, audio and MCR crews, as well as creating the full plan of networking distribution for all incoming and outgoing sources. It is broadcast live on Fox Sports and Kayo, as well as Supercars’ Facebook page and Twitch and YouTube channels
“Some of the virtual races have got [a mix of] gamers and real drivers. We’ve got some big F1 stars jumping into it and it could be huge,” Newton says. “One of the things we are looking at is using technology to integrate the gaming experience with a real race, as we have quite rich data that comes off the cars. We can actually drive a game engine through [that data]. So you could be at home on your Xbox driving in a real Supercars race that is actually happening now, with no latency. There’s lots of cool things that people are trying to work out how to do in real time.”
Summer of sport?
Gravity’s business is not just around sports. “We work in entertainment and in reality TV, we’re in post production – we work in lots of different parts of the space,” says Newton. “But the projects side is a big piece of our business, providing venue-based facilities, either fly pack or outside broadcast. We have long-term contracts with broadcasters for the tennis globally and Formula One and the European Football Championships. There’s a mix of domestic, so is always year after year, but there’s a fair bit that’s cyclical.”
This includes the Euros and other major fixtures. “For all of those big cyclical events, whether it’s rugby, cricket, or soccer, we work at all of them in some capacity, whether for the federations or the hundreds of rights holding broadcasters around the world,” he says. “That’s really good business, but it’s very seasonal.”
“There doesn’t seem to be too much doubt as to whether the European Football Championships will take place,” continues Newton. “Europe is managing soccer well. A lot of the venues don’t have crowds in them. I think the UK and the US have done a great job with vaccination rollouts and Europe’s catching up.”
However Newton is less sure where the Tokyo Olympics are concerned. “I get some anxiety when I look at those big sporting events, there’s lots of planning for us,” he says. “We’ve got people in Tokyo, we’re up and ready; we want to do business. It’d be really disappointing if that event doesn’t happen. Yes, there might be some commercial downside, but it’s also the fact that we want to have something to look forward to that brings people together. The Olympics is a big platform, a big stage.”
Gravity has also produced a lot of second tier sports, “those probably less well funded by sponsorship” as Newton describes them. “We produce a lot of second-tier cricket, a lot of second-tier rugby. In the US we do Minor League Baseball as opposed to Major League Baseball,” he says. “We do all the collegiate sports, which [as some colleges command audiences up to 90,000] shouldn’t be taken as a minor league.
“People want to see those grassroots sports, because the big sports are quite unattainable with rights sewn up. So we do that kind of thing for the likes of Sky who are trying to deliver value on their many channels. They bring in those lower tier feeder sports, maybe just to highlight some of the better games in the lower leagues.”
“We do a lot of the action sports as well, so for Red Bull we do cliff diving and mountain biking,” he adds. “We’ve got quite a broad pallet of productions that we work on around the world, from the biggest sports to the absolute smallest sports.”
Women’s sport is also a focus, such as its remote production coverage via a large HD gallery at its Manchester facility of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup for the BBC. Gravity Media has also partnered with The FA and broadcasters including the BBC, ESPN and BT Sport to produce the Women’s Football Show highlights programme for several years from its London Production Centre.
“We’ve got quite broad pallet of productions that we work on around the world, from the biggest sports to the absolute smallest sports”
Looking further ahead, Gravity is in a prime position for Qatar 2022. “We have a Gravity business there [in Doha],” says Newton. “There are eight venues for the World Cup soccer and we’ve done the infrastructure, cabling and build for six of them.”
Recent investment has been broad, to reflect the breadth of Gravity’s interests. “We always try to look at technology with a view to thinking, ‘what’s the benefit to the client in embracing that technology?’ We have to be measured about how we deploy our capital, especially the way the world is today.”
That deployment includes a $5 million, multi-year enterprise pricing agreement with Grass Valley. “We’re always spending a lot on those traditional products such as Grass Valley glue,” says Newton. “We’re spending a couple of million euros with EVS and we’ve just received a multi-million pound delivery of Canon lenses, so we’re spending millions of dollars on that core technology.
“We’ve also invested in graphics, as we’re designing graphics internally,” he continues. Part of this is a move into extended reality sets using LED screens.”
“We’ve done quite a lot of work in that space to create bigger sets in a virtual world,” he explains. “The only things real in the studios are the presenters and the desks; everything else we build in the 3D world, but as you move the cameras around, all the perspective moves.
“The only things real in the studios are the presenters and the desks; everything else we build in the 3D world”
“In terms of live broadcast, we’ve done some award shows where we created big [virtual] sets. For the Olympics for [Australia’s] Seven Network, we’ll create a big Japanese themed set. We’ll have one real set with real screens and the other set will be a virtual world.”
“It doesn’t necessarily make production cheaper,” he adds. “It makes it more flexible, but what you don’t do in post production, you have to do in pre production.”
Newton says the pandemic has “just accelerated where we were going to be, three years forward”.
“Everybody wants to work in a cloud-based, remote way,” he continues. “Commercially, that’s an efficient way of working. But a lot of our people that [work in post production] actually want to be in a community [like Soho] where they collaborate and they engage with other people who are creatives; they can’t do that from their one bedroom flat on the other side of London.
“However the skills that we’ve learned by doing things remote and doing things cloud-based will always be there; they will get developed so we can work more efficiently. We’ve accelerated the technology so I can be posting a piece of work in London and I can be working on it at the same time as one of my colleagues in Los Angeles and one in New York, and we can all collaborate, because it’s cloud based.
“The business has also changed in the sense that we now do a lot of social media production. [As well as] what we do for linear TV or broadcasting or pay-TV, you also have that digital element. People expect that to be standard now.”
“Also, people expect us to produce programming ourselves,” he continues. “People are demanding content and need different kinds of content produced at certain values. We are speaking to Amazon on a regular basis about doing programmes. They’re more scripted shows rather than [live] sports shows, but we’ve also done behind the scenes, fly on the wall shows around soccer such as Manchester City and Spurs. There’s an opportunity for us to showcase our own skill sets as well as what we do for a client base.”
“Pre-pandemic everyone would be looking for 1080p HDR 4K, bigger, better, more often,” Newton continues. “Since the pandemic everyone has had a bit of a reset. They probably still have aspirations to have that greatness but it’s balanced with a sense of efficiency. Broadcasters have shed lots of overhead costs and people, and they’ve pushed a lot of those decisions onto us and the supply chain has probably changed a bit [as a result].”
“I see that as a turnkey service and as a growth piece of our business,” he continues. “Previously a broadcaster such as ESPN might have produced some of the programming and then might have gone to a facilities company like ours to provide the trucks or the studios, and they would put it all together. Arguably, they don’t have a lot of those skill sets in their business anymore, so they’ve outsourced it. They just want to come to Gravity Media and say, ‘you cover that for me; you bring the creatives, you bring the graphics in, you bring your connectivity in, you bring the studio in and I’ll supply the talent, and I’ll just write you one cheque’. They get a product of great quality, which is efficiently produced.”
Newton says certain of Gravity’s competitors are following the same path. “They’re very big facilities companies that have got to find that piece of the production, while we’re a much smaller facilities company that has a bigger production [skill set] already. So it’s much easier for us to [provide that turnkey solution] than others. We’re relatively small by comparison, which means we’re more agile.”
According to Newton, this is the direction going forward. “To survive in this world I think you have to disrupt. You have to look at the territories in the market and plan and react accordingly. Some things we do won’t be so successful and others will. We’ve always managed to guess where the market is going and arguably lead the market slightly.”