ESPN prepares for English Premier League kick-off

UK: At 17.30 on Saturday 13 August, the long drought will be over and the first televised English Premier League game of the season will be transmitted as Newcastle host Arsenal live on ESPN. Andy Stout talks to Jeroen Oerlemans, Head of Channels ESPN EMEA, about the plans for the coming season.

If this year’s match is anything like last season’s fixture when Newcastle came back from 0-4 down, then ESPN will have a minor classic on their hands. Even if it isn’t though, then this, the first of the broadcaster’s 23 live EPL matches,marks an important milestone for the company as it confidently moves into its third season of coverage.

New signings in front of the camera include the excellent if occasionally combustible Robbie Savage, and new developments behind it include a transition to full HD TX.

“We have upgraded the studio to HD, which is great in that we now have a smaller area behind the main studio that we can also use for smaller operations such as our World Rally Coverage,” says Oerlemans “ And in the course of the next few months we are building an extension to the studio which will have an interactive touchscreen, using technology being developed in Bristol and mainly for Robbie’s use, for analysis of the matches.”

Out on the road, where ESPN uses SIS Live to cover its matches (Arena looks after the rugby), there are likely to be few changes to its typical 23 camera configuration, give or take the odd ground where there isn’t room for Steadicams to run the touchlines etc. 3D is also a bit of a moot point to a channel without its own platform at this stage of the season anyway, despite its high-profile efforts at last season’s FA Cup Final. But what ESPN does quietly hope to pull off this season is a further relaxation of the boundaries between club, fan and broadcaster, and it’s here that its influence is probably being felt the most as other broadcasters also adjust their coverage to accommodate what its doing.

It started this with rugby, using pitchside cameras and sets to take its commentators out of the studio and closer to the action. “Then when we started working on the FA Cup we thought we would be able to do this with the smaller teams, and that was extremely successful and we managed to extend that to almost every ground that we went to,” says Oerlemans. “We like the pitchside presentation quite a bit and maybe we’ll start to use that in the Premier League matches as well.”

Oerlemans tells of a pre-season match involving Arsenal at the Emirates, where ex-Arsenal legend Thierry Henri did a 10-minute interview despite initial reservations following an emotional lap of honour, simply because he’d been waved over to a pitchside camera by another ex-Gunner, Martin Keown, on the commentary team.

Some EPL managers though are famously prickly about such things. Does Oerlemans see a change in opinion amongst them? “We’re progressing step by step,” he says. “If you compare coverage when we started to where we are now, we’re making inroads. We’re doing it slowly and carefully though, because we want to work with partners in this and want them to be comfortable We do half time interviews with managers in the SPL, and maybe we will have some EPL managers doing the same [this season] because they’ve seen the way we work and that it’s such a good way to communicate with the fans.”

And, as always, some managers are going to need that support more than others as the season unfolds…

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