BBC’s Paul Davies discusses the Six Nations: part one

The Six Nations sees the BBC, France Télévisions, Sky Italia and RTE unite to provide coverage of the premier international rugby tournament in the Northern Hemisphere. In part one of a two-part feature, BBC exec producer Paul Davies talks to Andy Stout about the 2013 tournament.

The Six Nations is one of those classic European institutions, an old tournament and a new one in the same breath. It can trace its original roots back to the Home Championship of 1883, while in its current incarnation it has traded since 2000 when Italy was finally deemed of sufficient rugby-playing strength to be added to the roster of England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Apart from a brief hiatus with home England games appearing on Sky, in the UK at least the tournament has primarily been the province of the BBC and is now firmly ensconced as one of the jewels in its sporting crown. Indeed, the Corporation also used to cross the waters and produce the matches from Dublin and Rome, but relinquished those tasks three years ago. As a result, the production of the tournament is now firmly multinational.

“You have four different companies and six or seven different directors, so any one weekend you can have half a dozen different directors doing it in their own style, which in rugby can be quite interesting,” says Paul Davies, exec producer of the tournament for the BBC. “Certainly the French and Italian directors can be very different from what we would expect. The French, for instance, like to be very artistic, which is their style, but as long as they capture all the action then that’s fine.

“It’s not right or wrong, it’s a familiarity thing and there are certain grammatical things that you need when covering rugby. It’s a complicated and technical game and if you’re not on the right shots at the right time then it can be disturbing to viewers.”

Whereas football can spend as much as 90% of its time sitting on Camera One, rugby is far more of a balance between Cameras One and Two; the wide angles necessary to see the angles of attack and the wider game across the pitch, and the close-ups to see the fine handling skills and what is going on amidst a sea of bodies.

“Then there’s the challenge of how do you present rugby and how do you treat the audience,” says Davies. “Probably as many as 75% of our BBC audience [which regularly draws 8m] don’t watch rugby outside of the Six Nations, so we do need to consider that when we’re using the terminology in the the games and during the build up and and analysis. We’re not heading for the lower common denominator, but we do have to acknowledge that audience alongside the hardened crowd of rugby enthusiasts that watch it week in and week out and demand a quality product.”

For the 2013 tournament, the BBC has introduced a whole new raft of graphics working in partnership with Opta, official data partner Accenture, and sports graphics specialist Alston Elliot.

“We’ve expanded the pack of graphics a lot this year with Opta coming on board,” says Davies. “We’ve even had some of the talent – Jeremy Guscott and Sir Clive Woodward – going along to Opta’s HQ to see exactly what data is being collected and it really benefits some of the their analysis of the game.”

More stats and graphics also helps further explain the game to the viewer, from refereeing decisions (explaining which, Davies says, can be a complex art in itself), to annotating refereeing decisions under the clock, to putting in details of whether a kicker has been successful and where from on the pitch. “It’s also important though to decide whether you bang these up without any explanation, and some of them you can and some of them you can’t. Some need explanation by the talent.”

Another innovation for 2013 has seen a second expert summariser added to the commentary team so that there is always a balance in the commentary box between nations on the one hand (ex-rugby players famously can have some difficulty in being objective) and forward and backs players on the other, who both often have very different perspectives on the same game.

But then the perspective of audio is a very different one for rugby anyway, and something that the 5.1 team at the BBC pays particular close attention to, whether that be what seems like the entire nation of Wales singing ‘Land of my Fathers’ or the crunching, visceral sound of two enormous packs thundering into each other at the scrum.

“We get mics right in there on the touchline, and, of course, we have the ref’s mic which picks up an awful lot of stuff – unlike football when you couldn’t possibly think of having that going out live because of the language, but the discipline’s there in rugby to allow you to do it.”

As well as the ref mic, the BBC was also the first to mic up the TMO (Television Match Official) so that viewers can hear exactly what the referee is querying when looking for adjudication via video replay – a crucial part of the game as TMOs are only allowed to respond to a referee’s questions.

“We ride the sound very well, I think, because it’s always changing,” says Davies. “It’s a fine balance between getting the sound of the crowd right, the contact between the players, the commentary levels, and the ref mics. We’ve been trying to push it a bit more in terms of lifting the effects to a slightly higher level than perhaps we would normally have done this season. We got one or two complaints too, which I think is a good thing as it shows that it’s being noticed.”

In part two: cameras, ultra slo-mo, and plans for the future.

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