Live from Wimbledon: Game, set and match to WBS with second Championships as host broadcaster

One year on from Wimbledon Broadcast Services’ (WBS) successful debut as host broadcaster for the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) annual Championships and the atmosphere is far more relaxed.

After taking over from the BBC’s 90-year run as host last year, WBS has settled comfortably into its role after the mammoth project that saw a multi-million-pound rebuild of the broadcast centre and update of all services for the 2018 Championships, working with technical partner NEP.

Speaking to SVG Europe, head of broadcast and production, Paul Davies, said: “We’re evolving the whole time; it’s evolution not revolution. What we did last year was pretty groundbreaking and we were very confident we could deliver it, but we didn’t try to overdeliver. We knew we were starting this year from a very good template in terms of doing the 18 court coverage, and 4K on Centre Court.”

For 2019, the goal has been to refine the core of what was implemented last year, noted Davies.

“There’s no need to innovate for innovation’s sake; we’ve got a really good, robust system now and it’s about tweaking it and adding little things, subtle things, just to enhance it for the broadcasters.”

“The basics were in place and we’re clearly going to keep those, but we looked at every other aspect in review; we have this famous thing called ‘the list’, where every element of the production is looked at from the smallest detail to the biggest one, and for all the broadcasters, not just the host output; for everybody around the world, [the question is] how can we improve their coverage?

The WBS team, Paul Davies, Bethan Evans and Tom Giles in the quality control room of the broadcast centre, AELTC

“So we start from our perspective thinking what can we give to them to improve that, and that’s based on feedback from [the broadcasters themselves].”

Commented broadcast technical manager, Tom Giles: “We did so much last year that most of the changes this year and most of what we’ve been doing are internal, making processes smoother for rights holders, and making the communication strategy better.”

Giles went on: “There’s no need to innovate for innovation’s sake; we’ve got a really good, robust system now and it’s about tweaking it and adding little things, subtle things, just to enhance it for the broadcasters.”

Giles said that this year, he was far more relaxed about the start of the Championships following last year’s launch of WBS as host broadcaster.

“On the technology side, you’ve done all the hard work. You’ve proved it works, obviously, and you’ve got that consistency of the engineering teams of NEP, you’ve got the consistency of us at WBS operations, so from my side it’s pretty comfortable in terms of getting on air.”

However, he added: “There’s always nuances and stuff that stress you out and there are always things you want to improve on.”

Birds eye view

Wirecam supplied by ACS in action

The big technical story this year at the Championships has been one of those improvements of coverage for broadcasters; a wirecam from ACS. Davies said that even 10 years ago, when he and Evans were at the BBC and Giles was at NEP, “there’s always been the aspiration to have a wirecam at Wimbledon”.

He went on: “We’re always very respectful of not interfering with the play, so we would never put a Spidercam on Centre Court, in the way that the other Grand Slams have. The Australian Open and the US Open, they have a Spidercam on their main show courts. We feel that interferes too much with play and the spectators’ experience, so whilst we wouldn’t do that, we always knew that a wirecam either across the grounds or adjacent to would offer these incredible images.

“It was just incredible that we got the green light on the practicalities of doing it, then for the Club and the Board to agree to the aesthetics of it and actually doing it, it was rewarding,” Davies went on.

The narrow walkways are packed with spectators as soon as play starts, and the wirecam brings some of that atmosphere to viewers at home

Getting that green light from AELTC to erect the wirecam was a challenge, Davies stated: “The ACS wirecam at 381 metres long is the big headline for us this year, in many ways, first in terms of getting Club approval to erect [the] two 33 metre towers. The view from the Royal Balcony from the Clubhouse is a very protected vista and whilst we have the 72 metre hoist which was to the right as you looked out, we have moved that, which cleans up that look from that balcony but by its nature we had to put that pylon [for the wirecam] somewhere so we put it [and its fellow] on the golfcourse.”

The hoist moved this year from the north of the grounds to the south, which has not only meant broadcasters have access to a more open view of the entire geography of the grounds, but they also get stunning shots at sunset with spectacular light and shadow.

AELTC acquired the golfcourse opposite in December last year. However, it is continuing to operate as a golfcourse until 31 December 2021, and so there were still many checks and permissions needed in order to erect the pylons for the wirecam, including checking the density of the soil to ensure the pylons did not subside.

Giles said the surveys for the wirecam towers were in-depth and out of his usual work remit. He explained: “I’ve never spent so much time interested in soil. [For the towers] there had to be ground surveys to know how much force you can put down on the soil and how much weight you can put on the ballasts to keep the towers up.

“I almost had a little party when we got the numbers back that meant we could do it – 150-kilo newtons per square metre – the magic number. It allowed us to say that wirecam was good to go. We had been a long time in the process of [making] wirecam [happen].”

The towers were erected one week prior to the Championships. “The first tower went up Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday morning and the second tower went up Wednesday afternoon, Thursday morning. Thursday morning at early doors, 4am [I] had to come in and put the wire up,” said Giles.

Unique relationship

Giles went on to note that it is WBS’ unique relationship with AELTC, which an outside company would not have, that has allowed it to make the wirecam project happen for the first time: “It would never have happened if WBS exist, not having the team that are here, embedded in the Club. It takes so many meetings, and there’s so much time involved in A) the look and feel and also B) technically delivering the logistics, the golfcourse, the surveys; you just wouldn’t have the time to do it.”

Added Davies: “You need to liaise with so many departments; the estates department, the horticulture department, the health and safety department, and the golfcourse, and if you’re not embedded at the Club, that’s just a very difficult road to navigate through.”

Said Giles it is all about, “logistics, aesthetics, but the outcome is as spectacular as we dreamt it could be, and has given a completely different perspective, not just on the Championships but the look of the grounds, the crowds”. He added: “We just had an international broadcasters meeting this morning, and unanimously all the broadcasters [said the wirecam] has transformed the look of the club and how they’re portraying it to their viewers back home.”

WBS is integrating wirecam into its own coverage, as well as making it available to rights holders. The footage works particularly well for courts in the southern end of the ground, especially courts 2, 3 and 12, noted Davies. “The camera guys are getting very used now to getting tighter shots, and drifting; there’s such wonderful architecture around the Clubhouse and Centre Court and they’re getting some great shots.”

Broadcast manager, Bethan Evans, added that the wirecam enables broadcasters to set the scene of the Championships: “It’s really good to be able to re-establish where you are. When you’re in a court like court 12, for the public at home you probably don’t know where court 12 is in these grounds. You’re used to seeing Centre and 1, but seeing 12 framed from a wirecam shot so you can get its geography, I think is quite unique and it’s really helped the broadcasters to understand where the action is taking place.”

Immediately after the Championships finishes, the wire and towers have to be dismantled and their locations on the golfcourse returned to their previous semblance. WBS is not allowed to leave any footprint of the towers behind for possible use next year. Giles added: “We try to be sympathetic [to the needs to the golfcourse]. We’ve got great support from those guys over there and we’ve got a good relationship now; it’s not without its challenges but as with all these things I think people see the benefits once they’re up and running.”

Inside the quality control room in the WBS broadcast centre

In principle the wirecam will be back in some form again next year, said Davies. “The reaction from the broadcasters has been so positive that it would be a real shame not to do it again next year. [At our international broadcasters meeting] the feedback’s been just incredible, so it’s [just a case of] reviewing [wirecam] with the Club after the Championships, more in terms of the aesthetics to see how can they be improved.

“Now we do know what [the towers] look like when they’re up and how much they’re protruding above the trees we can position them slightly more sympathetically… you’re learning all the time.”

WBS has increased the number of beauty cameras this year to 20, “bringing the beauty and majesty of the grounds [to viewers], tennis in an English garden,” said Davies. WBS is providing all those cameras to the on-site broadcasters as well as providing some on WBS’ international distribution.

“What is fairly new from last year is the ability to give to the individual broadcasters on site control of those cameras on occasion, so they can call through to quality control and request… special access to [a specific] camera for 10 or 15 minutes,” stated Davies. “So the BBC, for example, would use the wirecam or another cam atop their BBC 1 or BBC 2 transmission; it just allows them to integrate all the beauty shots within their domestic, bespoke output.”

He continued: “What is the beauty of being embedded at the Club, for us, is that we can see all the developments that are taking place and take advantage of the opportunities to embed those camera within new structures, or if we know an outlook is going to be particularly amazing, for example the Southern Village, which is new this year so… we thought that would be a good place to A) capture and B) it’s pretty, so we out a camera in there, the Southern Village camera.”

All for the broadcasters

Another of those improvements for broadcasters this year was the one on one interview room, which was small and decorated in traditional Wimbledon purple and green wallpaper, which Davies said, “didn’t look very good”. That has been replaced with a VR green screen set, created with Moov, which is influenced by the design and feel of the historic Club House.

Evans said: “When you provide an environment like [the VR set] broadcasters are obviously much happier to have their interviews [with players] in that location, which means they can happen more quickly, you get a number of interviews done back to back and [the broadcasters] are even able to add their own logo into that virtual set so it feels like part of their family… part of their channel.”

One of WBS’ ambitions has been to do a drone shoot to give broadcasters access to stunning, never seen before B-roll. This year AELTC had completed a number of key projects, including the roof and suites on number 1 court, new player dressing rooms, the Southern Village and a new American Express lookout on the facilities building.

“The whole place is looking incredible,” said Davies, “so we knew this was the year to do the drone shoot. We got permission as this is normally a no-fly zone around and over the Club.” The shoot was scheduled for the Wednesday before the Championships began, but due to cloud was rescheduled for the Thursday which, said Davies, “was glorious”. He went on: “Tom and I went out early in the morning at 6.30am and started filming. The weather was superb and the courts were beautifully dressed. We worked with every department to make sure everything was looking its best. We shot around two hours of content, which now sits on the central content store [WBS’ on-site, EVS backbone] and you just have to look at anybody’s output and you’re seeing these drone shots the whole time.”

Added Giles: “It’s back to that being embedded in the Club point. The fact is, two hours before [the drone shoot] we could quickly make a call to the guy that does the screens and ask him, in these screens can you just put the [Wimbledon Championships] logo on, because you know that person, you’ve got that relationship. Just having those quick reactions is worth its weight in gold.”

Much like reporting from Chelsea Flower Show, Davies and the team are pushing to get presenters out amongst the flower-strewn avenues of the Wimbledon grounds to show viewers at home the many aspects of the venue, as well as transmitting some of the atmosphere of the Championships.

Davies said: “The aim of it all is to bring the viewers, [of which] the majority probably won’t get the chance to come to the Championships, so we’re bringing the Championships, the Club, and the environment to them with the use of all these cameras and getting the presenters out and about the grounds.

“We’re very keen to get the broadcasters out of the broadcast centre, ironically; so from presenting from fairly cold studios with high windows, we’re putting platforms in right across the grounds to take advantage of the very fine weather. It’s an outdoor event clearly and we love to see our presenters across the world in that environment with the flowers and the backdrop, rather than in the studio,” Davies added.

Challenges and benefits

Much of what WBS offers, including the wirecam and drone footage, is as a result of feedback from broadcasters. This year many broadcasters, such as Channel 7 and ESPN, are requesting more post-match interviews with players immediately after they step off court, and not just Centre Court.

While this adds to the workload for WBS, it is a logistical challenge it is happy to embrace in order to keep broadcasters happy, Davies explained: “[Broadcasters] are wanting to do interviews themselves, immediate reactions as soon as a player’s finished, and that’s only something we do on the host feed on Centre and number 1 [court] as a matter of course, and occasionally on courts two and three, but now they’re looking to do it on all the other courts.

“We’re trying to find reasons to say no, but we don’t want to say no, so we’re allowing it to happen,” he laughed. “It’s kind of self-perpetuating because the more you allow it, the more people will ask to do it, and we like to say yes. That’s been a big challenge [logistically] but also a huge benefit for the broadcasters.”

Even the WBS quality control room is about helping broadcasters, viewing their outgoing feeds and if WBS spots any potential weaknesses in camera positions or even graphics, it offers alternatives. Davies commented: “If we think someone’s got a [camera] position that can be improved upon, and we can offer that, then we’ll do that.

“If we think they’re using graphics that are perhaps not quite in keeping with the look of the Championships and how we’d like to be represented around the world from a branding perspective, we can help [broadcasters] by offering them our templates, for example.”

Part of that constant aim to improve coverage and the representation of the Championships also comes from the team travelling to see broadcasters during the year. Inbetween Championships, the WBS team travel globally for rights negotiations, and also to study individual broadcasters’ productions, sitting down with the teams and to work out what WBS can do with them to boost their coverage.

For this Championships, WBS has also created an entry-level access to the central content store to allow all broadcasters to access the added beauty shot content, noted Giles: “We’ve put different access levels into the central content store this year, so you can come in at an entry-level but get all the colour from the ground, so we’ve been elevating our production, be that our ENG cameras and our edit and producers on-site to offer better packages and stuff like that.”

Giles concluded: “Once you’ve got a well-established system you can put more around the edges.”

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