Profile: Eurosport looks to the future
Just west of the centre of Paris, Eurosport’s gleaming HQ is one of a brace of high-tech industry buildings that dominate views from the Seine. As Wikipedia puts it, the area boasts ‘the largest cluster of telecommunication and media businesses in France hosting the headquarters of most major French TV networks’. If you’re not here, you’re nowhere effectively, and Eurosport is very much here.
For over two decades now, Eurosport has been broadcasting – as the name suggests – European sport into European homes. After a complex birth that involved Sky Television and the EBU, it’s now been wholly owned by the French giant TF1 Group since 2001 and is broadcast in a mammoth 20 languages. As the broadcaster admits itself, this can lead to some interesting problems such as trying to find a good Portuguese-speaking ski-jumping commentator, or indeed the logistical headache of servicing its 7000 individual distribution contracts (which range from nationwide ones all the way down to one covering a single block of 12 flats in Moscow).
It went HD fairly early back in 2008 and is thus far enough down the road to being fully tapeless that you have to be observant to notice the final two HDCAM tape machines languishing at the back of one of its state of the art playout suites. HD has been a huge success for the broadcaster, but as François Schmitt, Deputy Managing Director Broadcast and Technical Means points out, it wasn’t exactly overnight.
“The adoption of HD was a very long process, and maybe we have forgotten that fact,” he says in reply to a question about 3D. “3D will be faster, but it takes around 10 years to apply a new technology onto the market. You have to service all the different parts of the channel: production, broadcasting, cameras, end user and so on.”
Schmitt maintains that there are two brakes on the adoption of 3D: production, which needs to be simplified to a ‘one format fits all’ model, and consumer resistance to glasses. As such, despite its several broadcasts from Roland Garros, you would have to place it in the same cautious camp as public broadcasters like the BBC when it comes to the format.
“It’s a long process though,” he reiterates, “which is why I wouldn’t say that 3D is over. It just takes time and we will see if it is 3D, 4k or 8k which will develop.”
One of Schmitt’s opening statements indicates the direction that the broadcaster is taking in the here and now. “Clearly we are now more a media group than we are a TV group and that is a big change of the past 10 years,” he says. “We are working in that direction: to be able to broadcast our brands to all the different screens.”
Connected TV, internet, second screen…Eurosport is targeting it all, but Schmitt has some qualifications to make to the current popular mindset that this is a simple stampede for riches. “You need some standardisation,” he says. “For new media and the new model of distribution, you need some form of standardisation for things like video on the web. OTT? What will be the type of standard for all the different TV manufacturers or all the different types of interface? Clearly you need to use HTML5 or an equivalent in order to create a new distribution standard. Without that it is too complex.”
His thoughts on second screen applications are interesting too. Rather than trying to cram as much into an app as possible, especially on the data front, he advocates keeping things simple and follows a ‘One function, one screen, one application’ mantra.
“It’s a question of mass market,” he says. “With fewer features on the second screen you can reach more people. For example, with the Eurosport Player, if you need more feeds – tennis or maybe from the Olympics – you can add them, if you want to chose another application, you can. Sport is based on emotion. Keeping things simple is the best way to present it to the viewer. You can add value, but not during the live events.”
One thing you can do during live events, of course, is provide a new viewpoint, which is exactly what Eurosport has been doing with its coverage of the IRC series (the Intercontinental Rally Challenge – a series it set up itself several years ago). Here, it’s been using POV HD onboard cameras relaying back to the OB trucks via helicopter relays to provide live coverage of the far-flung rally stages.
“Here we can create a new experience for the viewer and we are very proud of the results in terms of the on-air look,” says Schmitt. This technology is quite reliable but it’s always the same: you need to stabilise the quality of the signal. What will be important is to develop the integration of this new camera so we can use it in new areas – on an athlete or whatever. It could be very interesting on alpine skiing, for example.
“If we have a dream, it’s to be use these small cameras more and more and to use them in more productions and integrate them in more events than today. It will be great for the experience of the viewers.”