Inside the game: the University Boat Race

UK: Oxford upset the odds and won the recent 157th Boat Race against Cambridge on the River Thames in London. Andy Stout talks to John Roberts, Engineering Manager at SIS Live, about how the first HD race was transmitted and exactly how you shoot an event that winds through 6779 watery metres of Britain’s capital city.

“To answer how on earth you cover something like this, the first step is simply to go to the course and have a look,” he says. “Overwhelming as it may seem to start with, a plan does emerge surprisingly quickly; in this case 32 cameras and where to put them.”

A good few of those cameras are mobile. Six are afloat on the river, one tracks overhead in a helicopter, while four are mounted on vehicles at various locations along the towpath. The rest are fixed at a variety of locations, whose recitation is like a journey back through the river’s history and its landmarks.

“We have fixed cameras on Putney Bridge, Bishops Park opposite the start line, and several more at Putney covering the presentation elements,” says Roberts. “A great hoist at Putney as a camera position, another fixed camera at the mile marker, then as we go up the river: Riverside Studios, just before Hammersmith Bridge; one at St Pauls Gardens just after Hammersmith Bridge; one on a rowing club pontoon; another on a wall near Chiswick Mall; then we cross the river to Lonsdale road; cross the river again to a slipway just before Barnes Bridge; another just after Barnes Bridge; then one on the Dukes Meadow opposite the Brewery; and then cross the river again to the roof of the Ship pub at Mortlake. We have two on the finish line, one of which is the finish graphics generator, one on either side of Chiswick Bridge, and a few more at the finish site where they all come ashore.”

All this is run out of only two OB units at either end, though four intermediate sites feature comms trucks that offer as many of the riverside cameras as practical to the main site with a handover at Barnes Bridge.

“This gives much greater production integrity and control to the main site director to pull the programme together as a whole,” says Roberts.

Although Roberts admits that the geography of the river and its crossing points does to some extent dictate matters, over the years positions have changed to keep the coverage fresh. This year saw four cameras move location to opposite sides of the river, for instance. But the biggest single change has been the move towards digital signal processing and the use of ground-based receivers for the mobile sources linked by fibre multiplexes to the main site.

“This has made things a lot more predictable from the days when most of the mobile coverage went via the helicopter, with limited backups on the ground,” he says. “All of which made it an interesting day if the helicopter couldn’t fly…”

Roberts won’t be drawn on exactly how the race is broadcast, describing the details as a bit of a trade secret that involves a “combination of satellite links, terrestrial HD fixed links and fibres”, but it was a secret that was put under even more pressure this year with the move to HD TX.

“The main problem that presented was bandwidth and data rates,” he says. “When you consider that of 24 cameras that are available on the Putney truck mixer, 16 of them are on radio links you begin to see the problem.

“However, we did in fact test last year with HD kit with the output switched to SD, so we were fairly confident of it all working,” he continues. “But still, it was a nice moment on the Friday rehearsal when we saw the first proper run up the river in HD. It did look good!”

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