Coping with COVID-19: Sunset+Vine chairman Jeff Foulser on how his company is handling the crisis

Sunset+Vine chairman Jeff Foulser at SVG Europe’s SportTech 2019 event in Lord’s Cricket Ground, 22 May

Like most sports production companies, London-based Sunset+Vine has been impacted significantly by the Coronavirus pandemic. With no live sport to cover, bills to pay and staff to keep both safe and in work, it’s a difficult and unprecedented situation.

But it’s not insurmountable if the industry can continue to work together, as chairman Jeff Foulser told SVG Europe.

SVG Europe: We’re now into week three of the COVID-19 enforced lockdown in the UK, there hasn’t been any live sport here for a similar amount of time and the world as we know it has changed dramatically. What is the current situation at Sunset+Vine?

Jeff Foulser: “Live sport is, of course, the lifeblood of our business [but because there isn’t any happening at the moment] there isn’t any money coming in. But clients like BT Sport have been incredibly supportive. They’re helping us through it.

“We’ve got a very strong balance sheet and we’ve put measures in place. We have furloughed quite a lot of people. Everybody else who is working is working from home. We have a plan now that we are confident will keep us going until the end of September at least. I think we’re probably quite fortunate in that sense.

“Let’s not beat around the bush. There are companies that are going to go bust during this period and I think independent production companies will if they don’t have a lot of cash in the business.”

“People have had to make some sacrifices. Everyone is taking salary cuts. But we all appreciate that it’s for the greater good and we all want to come out of this at the other end. We haven’t laid anyone off. Which is great. We’ve protected the lower-paid workers more than the higher paid ones. We’ve done what we need to do in order to support staff as much as we can but also to make sure we’ve got a business at the end of this.

“Let’s not beat around the bush. There are companies that are going to go bust during this period and I think independent production companies will if they don’t have a lot of cash in the business. One of our strengths is that we are part of a group so we have group money as well. We’ve got funds we can call on if we need to. We’re in as good a shape as we could be at the moment considering the circumstances.”

There’s been a lot of concern from the freelance community about how they are going to get through this crisis, especially as the government’s financial support schemes are not available to everyone. Have you been able to help your freelancers in any way?

“Unfortunately, we can’t really pay hundreds and hundreds of freelancers for work they’re not doing. It’s tricky. We’ve made sure that everything that they’ve done up until now, we paid them for. I had an email from one of our floor managers yesterday saying how appreciative he was that we paid the invoice so quickly. We’re doing our best.”

Are you creating any content at the moment?

“It does change every day but we are still doing work. BT Sport wants to keep some form of content going. So we’re making a Scottish football show on a Friday evening which is basically chat with a bit of action thrown in. All of it being edited at home. On Saturday [4 April 2020] we did Early Kick-Off. We did one last week which was a pre-record. But this Saturday we did a live show. There were live links from Jake Humphrey from his house in Norwich, and from BT Sports pundits in their houses, and then there was some football action thrown in. All done using the mobile phone network.”

So, is it fair to say that you’re having to be a bit more creative?

“Everyone’s trying to learn different ways of making television programmes. We’re trying to be as inventive as we can without having any live sport. We’re also making some shows for Red Bull and for World Rugby and it’s all being done in people’s back rooms.”

“Because you can’t actually go out and shoot stuff in the normal way means that the ideas have to be fairly basic. There are loads of archive-based ideas out there. The broadcasters are awash with archive type shows because they’re the easiest to put on the air.”

SVG Europe: How are your people coping with the change of lifestyle and the complete overhaul of their working environment?

“The senior people are cracking on and trying to do as much as they can and keep their own teams busy. We’re sending out regular updates about how the company is doing. We’ve had to make some cost savings but everyone has been incredibly understanding. People look around and they see the way the world is. Everyone’s been keeping very positive, to be honest, and they all want to be busy. They all really want to work.”

“No one wants to see any businesses go bust or people struggle to put food on the table. We are all doing as much as we can to help that.”

“TV is a very social environment. Particularly live OBs, when you’ve got 50, 60, 70 people all turning up at an OB and interacting and going for a couple of drinks in the pub after a live show. Everyone misses that and is desperate to get back to it. But by and large, they seem very positive.”

Do you think the experience of the lockdown, and the enforced changes, will fundamentally alter the way we work as an industry?

“No, I don’t. If we do get back to normal, I think people will revert back to the way they were before. The interaction between people is the best way to work and you can only do so much on Zoom calls. And in the OB business, you’ve still got to put trucks on the road. We’re already doing more remote productions. Will this crisis accelerate that? Possibly. There may be a desire to save money going forward because people are haemorrhaging money at the moment. So you could see a scenario where sports events are covered using fewer cameras to save money. Certainly in the short term.”

Have you noticed an increased sense of community and industry co-operation since the crisis began?

“World Rugby, ICC, Red Bull, Channel 4, BT Sport: all our clients are being very supportive. Everyone wants to help everyone else get through this. We’re all in the same boat really, aren’t we? The independent production community should support as many people as we can. No one wants to see any businesses go bust or people struggle to put food on the table. We are all doing as much as we can to help that.”

This interview took place on Friday 4 April 2020. 

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