Narrowing the gap: AE Live on how physical and digital is converging to create new audience experiences

By Dave Gill, chief technology officer, AE Live.

It’s not difficult to predict the major trends in our industry for 2023. After all, saying remote production will expand or audience expectations will remain high aren’t exactly bold statements.

What is challenging, and requires a fair amount of insight and introspection, is accurately planning for the more subtle variations underlying each of these market-changing factors: how far will we as an industry advance in being able to truly hyper-target audiences with ads and content? Will we fully harness the power of new technologies at our disposal to deliver what customers and consumers want? Will we continue to grow our industry by developing and nurturing new types of talent?

But before we look forward, it’s important to look back at 2022.

The first full year of post-COVID production created a compressed schedule as events that were postponed during the height of the pandemic all came roaring back. For our business that has meant covering four concurrent World Cups in October and November 2022 alone. Managing all that ‘COVID chaos’ was a huge challenge for companies, providers, leagues, vendors, even players and fans.

Everyone is looking forward to a more ‘business-as-usual’ year with events moving back to their regular cycle and the chance to do more planning and less reacting.

Redefining the user experience

People are still eager to watch sports, and sports properties and rights-holders are fighting harder for those eyeballs which are getting harder to attract and retain. Audiences now expect a more immersive experience with online interactivity and a mix of graphics. Technology like augmented reality (AR) has emerged beyond being an upsell to becoming a core service. What was once nice-to-have is now a must-have.

Companies need to adapt their business models to account for this increased and changing demand.

It won’t be uncommon to see specialised teams focusing on extended reality (XR) or mixed reality (MR) as the physical and digital worlds continue to converge and create entirely new types of user experiences.

We must all start to think in terms of super-serving our audiences.

All about choice

The virtual studio trend is another add-on service/turned broadcast staple. Audiences may not know, or even care, about what they’re seeing but for broadcasters and federations, it definitely makes a difference, financially and aesthetically.

A virtual studio environment adds incredible editorial flexibility, expanding what’s possible for giving the viewer at home a brilliant experience. Once a producer sees the end result and the range of programming that comes with it, they understand the potential impact on the entire content ecosystem.

The technology can be expensive, but many of the costs are up-front as broadcasters don’t have to invest in building eight studios – each with its own dedicated technology infrastructure – just to produce shows focused on eight different topics. People are going virtual because it provides nearly unlimited creative freedom.

Broadcasting today is increasingly about personalisation of the individual user experience. Whether that means consumers can choose their own ‘environment’ to watch or fans in a stadium have the choice to select a preferred camera view from their seats – that all remains to be seen.

But one certainty is people’s phones and mobile devices are getting much more powerful, a significant factor driving production decisions. The audience wants to drive their own hyper-targeted graphic journey and not just take a curated feed decided by a match director.

New engines of innovation

With one unchanging physical space, producers can create several impressive studio environments with a look that is more photorealistic, compelling and nearly indistinguishable from the physical world. Driving this trend is the increasing use of gaming engines to enhance virtual production technologies and make them more viable. The Unreal Engine, for example, can be incorporated into existing widely used graphics workflows to create impressive effects from a real-time render engine. We’ll see a continued gaming land-grab within the world of graphics, with these engines moving beyond virtual studios, AR and virtual reality (VR) to become a key element of all graphics production.

The technology is not yet perfect, lacking the toolsets of many existing platforms to deliver real-time services like designing and building data-driven graphics quickly or other applications that sit on top of a render engine and allow users to fully harness its capabilities. But they are catching up, especially as more developers build their own tools based on gaming engines.

Finding the right balance

So much has happened in the past few years that ‘change fatigue’ is a real symptom in our industry, to the point where we’re all looking for stability and a chance to simply catch up.

It’s an acknowledged fact remote production is here to stay. There are too many positive reasons for staying with it: increased programming flexibility or reduced carbon footprint. Plus, it gives broadcasters, who are also employers, a chance to fish in different pools for new talent without limiting their search to potential candidates located only within a reasonable distance from a physical location.

Closing the talent gap in our industry is another challenge that we must address collectively as an industry that’s aging and not known for its diversity. To survive and thrive, we need effective pipelines to new ideas, whether that’s casting wider recruitment nets, developing from within or changing hiring practices – while at the same time valuing and applying the institutional knowledge of established professionals.

Audiences are changing, with one generation aging and newer ones coming in with vastly different habits. Service providers need to help broadcasters adapt and evolve their products to stay relevant and reach those new viewers.

With more people watching content on a mobile device and scrolling through TikTok or Instagram vertically on their phones, it’s time to add 9:16 video content delivery to the mix as a core service. That leads to tighter integration between graphics and social media platforms, which has been happening for a while now but is simply the next step in the ongoing customer experience journey.

There are so many more opportunities for people to simply watch something else. The focus has to be on finding new ways to keep audiences engaged and staying loyal to programming, while also giving them plenty of choice. It will be a difficult balance to strike, but a necessary one in an industry all about choice.


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