BT Sport radicalises channel operation with decentralised remote production
Distributed team producing all content plus seven topical programmes for today's audience
BT Sport has taken the radical step of moving its entire production operation out of its studios at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, East London, and in just three weeks turned it into a decentralised remote operation.
Pushed by UK governmental travel and social distancing restrictions placed on the British public due to the coronavirus pandemic, BT Sport moved quickly to be able to run the entirety of its channel output with just five people on location at its studios in Stratford, while every other member of staff works from their respective homes.
That channel output includes seven topical programmes produced live or nearly live with all on-screen participants working alone, based out of their own homes, connected to the production teams by broadband or over EE’s 4G mobile network.
The broadcaster has spent the last three weeks working to enable this new, at-home, distributed way of working. Staff have remote access to its Main Control Room, with all editing, compliance, scheduling, access to media management, and everything else required to run a network now accessible off site. All of this access has been created from scratch in the last three weeks, Jamie Hindhaugh chief operating officer BT Sport, told SVG Europe.
“We’ve got our whole team still working on producing all the content that goes out from BT Sport, but not at Stratford. We’ve literally done all of this [through] daily calls and implemented all of it in the last three and a half weeks. I was determined that we didn’t try and break rules and that if the government advice was that you shouldn’t travel to work, that we didn’t ask our people to. So apart from that core team [of five people] we’ve been successful in that.”
Creating a virtual distributed gallery
Early on in the crisis, BT Sport put in new protocols that allowed its studios to still be used, but when the government announced only essential travel was allowed, social distancing encouraged, and no meetings of more than two people allowed, Hindhaugh commented, “I stopped it, I set a task”.
He sat down Andy Beale, chief engineer at BT Sport, as well as Timeline TV and Moov: “[I said] just to be clear guys, I don’t want any of our production teams leaving their homes, and I don’t want anyone working within more than two metres of each other. So if you think about that brief, and you think about how a gallery runs, you look at it and think that’s just impossible. But Andy being the brilliant Andy, and Dan [McDonnell] from Timeline TV being ever-brilliant as well, went off [and made it work].”
Hindhaugh stated BT Sport has managed to go one step further than the concept of remote production, to distributed remote production. He explained: “Remote is about centralising your back end operation in one place, but what we’ve done is created a virtual representation of that central gallery and put that across the UK. So on the front row normally in a gallery you have a PA, then you have a producer, then a vision mixer then you have a director; in our new world, they’re all in their own homes, all operating as if they were beside each other, but spread out across the UK. They’re in people’s garages, they’re in people’s bedrooms.
“So what we have is a complete remote production capability that is a virtual gallery, that’s being driven across the UK, that’s connected by broadband and bonded 4G, everyone on talk back, enabling us to have a production team that can produce live output, while meeting the criteria I set around making sure we behave in the way the government is advising us. I don’t think it’s been done before; I think it’s amazing.”
He continues, the content came next: “I said, look, I want us to be able to make live and relevant content; I think [that live and relevant content is] really important at this time because sport is a social event and people miss it, and we’ve got brilliant on-screen talent and brilliant content. We can still make programming that’s relevant. However, whatever we do on-screen has to reflect the challenges our audiences are going through.”
Hindhaugh noted that having on-screen talent working from home as well as production teams was important because the audience had to be able to see that everyone was playing by the same rules. “For me, as soon as you see someone in a studio, you know they’ve had to travel there, so that’s a no-no. You shouldn’t have more than two people in a studio – we had to remind some people of that – because of gathering [limitations] so we can’t do that.”
For its on-screen contributors, BT Sport has provided them with cameras in their homes; either broadcast quality cameras that they can operate themselves or remote pan and tilt cameras that the crew can control, or even the new iPhone with an app built by Timeline TV to create a broadcast smartphone, all with talkback. “So now we are able to produce live shows with VT inserts, graphic overlays; exactly as you would in a normal show, but all being produced from a network of homes across the UK.”
Topical relevant content
Once the technical side was set up, BT Sport was then able to think creatively around what content it would produce that would engage people today. BT Sport is now doing seven live or nearly live topical shows a week, all filmed and produced remotely.
Those that are nearly live are filmed on the same day so they are able to address breaking news and remain current, and to get audience engagement. Those programmes are: The Football’s Not On, a comedy show that is back next week, with the likes of Ian Stone, Omid Djalili and other comedians giving their take on the current world of football from a football fan’s perspective; Rugby Tonight On Tour on Wednesday nights; and Rugby Today every Sunday.
The live programmes are: Saturday’s Live: Early Kick-Off going out with Jake Humphrey hosting live from home as (last weekend the first programme made in this way was pre-recorded – read more here); Scottish Football Extra on Friday night with hosts across Scotland and the rest of the UK; Sunday’s Live: MotoGP The Greatest Race, a live show where each week the team discuss a selection of races before one race advances to the final after a public vote live on social media, hosted by Gavin Emmett in the UK and Suzi Perry live from France, “again, creating hours of absolutely relevant programming, and the response to that was amazing; people were saying thank you,” said Hindhaugh. “If that had been hosted from a studio I don’t think it would have resonated in the same way, because people would have looked at it [in a more critical way], saying, “why have you travelled in when I can’t?”.”
Also live from next week on Tuesday evenings is new series, Live: UEFA Champions League + One Year, which will be rerunning cut downs of previous season’s Champions League and Europa League games with British teams, with live wraps including people that played in those games and varied analyses. Said Hindhaugh, “you can actually watch it, and feel like you’re watching a live event”.
He continued: “So every day of the week we have live programming going out that’s editorially relevant, that’s engaging, that gives people a break from all the shit we’re in at the moment. I think that’s phenomenally exciting and I’m very proud of all of the teams, the fact we’re able to operate Stratford like we do [now], but also the fact that we’re able to create this programming. I’m so lucky to have people like Andy in my team, and relationships with people like Timeline TV and Moov.
“I’m just sitting here and it makes me smile, because I’m sat here in my son’s bedroom in Dorset, pulling all these different levers, and we are absolutely breaking whole new ways of working yet again. I’m phenomenally proud to be honest.”
The way of the future
This way of working is the future for BT Sport. It is going to fundamentally change the way the broadcaster works going forward, long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, stated Hindhaugh.
“For me, everything we’re doing here is for the long term. It’s not just to get us through to, ‘thank god we’re all back again’; this is about changing how we work, this is about enhancing what we have been doing with remote, this is about creating a more inclusive workforce, because we can offer opportunities to so many people who maybe have dependents and can’t leave the house, or can’t travel, or need to work part time.
“The exciting thing about is all of a sudden there’s huge positives coming out of this which will change the way BT Sport operates and works for the better,” he noted. “We will keep this agility and we will keep this sort of infrastructure.”
He continued: “I said to you before, within four years we’re going to do everything remote. This reminds me of the big financial crash where before that, people used to have long lunches, and after that it stopped. I think there will be some cultural shifts around this, and I think things will change, and if we embrace them, it will be really exciting.”
Concluding, Hindhaugh said: “I think it’s important to reflect audiences; it’s a lot easier at the moment to see what audiences do and don’t like and what they will tolerate and what they won’t. I think what I’m looking at is a way of creating brilliant content, but more for less, complementing our top end live stuff, but tapping into that diverse, creative input, [whereas] before it was very much that you had to travel to a certain venue to be able to work to create content for BT Sport; that’s going to go.”