Bundesliga, Sportcast and ‘a year of subtle change’

TV media service provider Sportcast counts as one of the largest producers of live sports in HD worldwide. And as a subsidiary of the DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga, which makes it host broadcaster of the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga, its enviable credentials are obvious.

“We focus very much on the quality aspect of the broadcasts, particularly the fields of editorial quality management and technical quality management,” explains executive assistant at the company, Tim Achberger. “We produce 612 matches a year and that gives us a great degree of expertise.”

The 2013/14 season has been a year of subtle change for the company. Some of these have been visible but comparatively minor — the addition of 2. Bundesliga to the HD transmission roster for instance had little impact considering that the company had been capturing the matches in HD since 2011 — while others behind the scenes have had a further reaching positive impact on quality.

“Up until last season the different OB companies that work for us were responsible for the co-ordination of the EVS operators, but we do that now from the booking stages onwards,” explains Achberger. “We have 18 matches per match day that we have to co-ordinate, but we weren’t always getting the very best operators on the best matches; it was a case of which OB company got to the operators first.

“We also plan meetings with them where we explain the philosophy of how we want to produce the slow motion too.”

This doesn’t sound like the usual sort of issue with EVS operators, but — in tandem with an aggressive expansion policy the DFL is undertaking with 21st Century Fox to take the Bundesliga to more than 80 TV markets from the start of the 2015/16 season — Sportcast wants to celebrate the skilful nature of ‘the beautiful game’ rather than the ugly incidents that sometimes mar it.

“Last year we also focussed a lot on fouls, but now we want to show the ball skills and technical finesse of the players more,” says Achberger. “We want to highlight this to give international viewers a better flavour of the quality of the Bundesliga.”

This year, five of the nine matchday matches are being captured using a 10+2+2 camera combination (previously this was limited to three matches per day), which adds a second super slomo and a reverse camera to its standard match day slate.

“Doing this fives times rather than three means it’s even more important that the operators have a good framework and can coordinate with each other,” says Achberger.

The standard configuration for the Bundesliga is what Sportcast refers to as 8+1+2. Additional cameras – one SSM and including chip cameras in the goals – allow the directors to capture reactions from both the fans and the coaches. The standard for the 2. Bundesliga is a 6+1 configuration; five high and two low cameras with one super slo providing both broad and efficient coverage of the action. Various extensions and options can raise the total cameras used up to 17, while the handful of stereo 3D matches being captured this year are done with eight stereo rigs supported by an additional four HD units for the SD feed. The audio profile meanwhile is resolutely 5.1

It’s interesting talking to Achberger how often the word ‘quality’ crops up. Sportcast is proud of the work that it does 612 times a year for the DFL and has no intention of resting on its laurels. Indeed, the way that it’s set up its whole production philosophy is to ensure that this quality continues.

“We work with a large pool of freelancers, cameramen, EVS operators and so on, but they all work continually with us, so each one needs to know the role they play in the whole construct. The Production Co-ordinator on site is always a Sportcast employee: he’s the one that prepares the production, co-ordinates on site, and is also the one responsible for the documentation of the production. It’s important for us that one person knows our philosophy and how we work and can communicate that to all the people that work for us.”

Indeed, as the company’s own extensive Production Manual for the current season says: “Quality assurance and quality management are the main guiding principles of Sportcast GmbH.”

A collection of numerous reports written by all persons involved in the production process form the basis for a thorough and objective evaluation process. Indeed, the company has even developed a web-based QM portal to allow for a fair evaluation of this large number of reports.

This sort of 360-degree review — involving everyone from the responsible Sportcast personnel, OB truck manager and the director on-site, broadcasting stations, and even downstream quality control before archival — ensures that all technical production problems are collected, categorised and evaluated online for all live productions.

This not only means the quality is kept scrupulously high but also means that the technical performance of all OB van service providers can be objectively contrasted, which given the high volume and relentless nature of the DFL can be handy data to have. It will also help in the transition to future formats.

“We’ve done some experiments with Ultra HD but it is Sky Deutschland that is taking the lead in that to be honest,” says Achberger. “We did one test where we captured a match in 4K using two cameras to look at the best framerates and quality aspects: what is the difference, how will we have to change the production unit on site and so on. But it’s the first contact with a new topic and, to be honest, I think there are changes needed before the industry is ready for it.

“Sportcast has the big advantage in that we can really focus on this single product, the Bundesliga, and we’re always interested in new camera systems and innovation,” concludes Achberger. “We’ve tested high speed chips on the cameras recently and will be looking at all the new developments in state of the art technology at NAB and beyond. It’s one of our main goals that we are always looking to improve.”

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