Premier League re-start: How Sky Sports went remote for the first time
EFL remote production experience invaluable as Sky team takes another giant step
The Premier League returned to action last week after a 100-day hiatus because of the coronavirus. Sky Sports was the first broadcaster back on air on Wednesday 17 June with a double header featuring Aston Villa v Sheffield United followed by Manchester City v Arsenal.
The next day, 18 June, several key members of the Sky production team including the Man City v Arsenal match director joined moderator Will Strauss to discuss the ‘new production normal’ at SVG Europe’s virtual Football Summit 2020.
On the vMix/Singular Live virtual platform for the session were Lawrence Cawsey, senior director, Sky Sports Football; Jena Mihalovic, technical operations project lead, Sky Sports; Kevin Ramsey, director of studios, Sky Production Services; and John Turnbull, deputy managing director, NEP UK Broadcast Services.
The discussion covered match directing, remote production, crewing and staff protocols, social distancing and health and safety, and what life is now like when working on live football coverage.
“There was quite a lot of pressure on the whole Sky team last night, directing Premier League football remotely,” said Cawsey. “There were many things we did for the first time last night. The technical and planning teams have done an amazing job in enabling us to deliver everything.
“What was it like to direct? Being away from the ground has its challenges. Obviously there were new camera and interview positions, and as a director you’re used to walking around before the game and obviously that is not possible when you are remote.
“It was the first time I’ve directed a game with no fans, and I would say, coming away from yesterday, I had a real appreciation of how important stadium fans are to the TV viewing experience,” said Cawsey.
“We rely a lot as directors on emotional shots of players in our storytelling, and these shots just don’t seem to happen as much with no fans in the stadium because the players don’t have fans to feed off. And normally you will hear the noise of the fans reverberate through the walls of the truck and that emits an energy to you and your crew.
“I chose to listen last night with the natural stadium audio as opposed to the augmented audio that Sky was offering, and it was a challenge to keep the energy levels up.
“But the one massive bonus of remote production is to be able to be home within ten minutes of the end of my shift, rather than a four-hour drive down the M6.”
Watch the session in full
“The first thing we led with was health and safety,” said Jena Mihalovic. “We always want people to be safe, but this is a very unique situation, having people coming back and working two metres apart.
“Everybody who has worked in television knows we like to be together! We lean on each other and work in very dense spaces.
“So the first thing we had to figure out was how to give each person what they needed to do their job in a safe way. That meant deconstructing how we normally work.
“So we created four separate graphics hubs, so that our graphics operators and stats people could operate at a safe place outside of the gallery. We looked at ways to limit the number of people on-site and people at Sky so that everybody can be kept safe. John can speak about that from the stadium side.
“In addition to graphics are the replay rooms. EVS operators like to operate shoulder to shoulder. It’s very hard to separate them out! So we built an entirely new replay area — still side by side but a little bit further away then they would like to be.
“Everybody who has worked in television knows we like to be together!” – Jena Mihalovic
“We also pulled our lighting directors out of the gallery and located them at another safe station at Sky. So it was really about unpacking our usual work spaces in a safe way.
“Remote production has been with Sky for I think about five years now,” added Mihalovic. “We’ve touched on it for previous productions. But last year we made a commitment to take the EFL remote, so we transformed the gallery and added connectivity, working with NEP Connect, to get connectivity at all of the grounds.
“We did about 50 games with the EFL and that has truly prepared us for slipping into the Premier League. I don’t think we could have done what we’ve done as easily without the experience we gained from doing the EFL day in and day out and learning from that as we went. That was really important.
“So while it wasn’t ‘easy’ it was an easy decision to make to go to remote production and keep our people safe by moving Premier League into the gallery we created for EFL, and then moving EFL, with a slightly reduced spec, into another gallery – adding the remote connectivity we needed there.
“The gallery still looks the same and acts the same to the production staff, which is a great comfort and also helps with the transition,” she said.
Overcoming obstacles without compromising the safety of people
Kevin Ramsey began by saying, “Well first of all I need to change teams after the Arsenal result last night! It goes without saying that Sky’s production teams have incredibly high standards and expectations in the work they produce.
“As the department that supplies both facilities and operational crews for Sky Sports it can be incredibly rewarding working side by side with people who push the boundaries. But there’s a flip side to that in the amount of graft it takes to support their visions!
“Especially at this time when there are so many logistical obstacles in our way. We clearly didn’t want to be the weak link that undermined what went to air. So what was really important to us was to work very closely with our Sky Sports counterparts in a very collaborative way to find high quality solutions without compromising the safety of our people,” said Ramsey.
According to John Turnbull, “It does feel different in the stadium. The crowd plays such a big part in sport. You feed off that: the feeling of enjoyment people are getting in the stadium, and of course at home.
“From a technical point of you are very focused on the delivery, so sometimes you don’t even know what the score is as you are checking to ensure everything is hitting air properly. But hopefully, in the near future, we can welcome people back again to stadiums.
“Each match presents a different set of challenges,” said Turnbull. “After each game we’ll review it to see what worked and what hasn’t worked. But I think the positive feedback we’re getting from people is that the overall approach has worked. People are back covering live sport, and live sport is back on television: we will continue to adapt our processes to meet that challenge.”
Opportunities presented for those who embrace the new landscape
Moderator Will Strauss put a question from the audience to Kevin Ramsey, asking how many of the hundreds of freelancers who work with Sky Production Services will be retained in the current situation. Would there be a lot less jobs in the future?
“In terms of volume of jobs I don’t see that there is necessarily going to be a change. There are two ways to look at this and it is very easy to focus on the negative. But working in new ways is something that has always been on our roadmap at Sky and at Studios particularly.
“In a positive sense I think it probably opens up entry points and avenues for people wanting to get into the industry” – Kevin Ramsey
“In some respects [the lockdown] has been a bonus in that it has forced us to work differently rather than taking a more measured approach without this in place. In a positive sense I think it probably opens up entry points and avenues for people wanting to get into the industry.
“Yes I believe there will be some change in roles and responsibilities – something we should encourage as the industry moves on anyway – but from the perspective of anybody wanting to either get in or continue to work in this industry, it’s really important that they embrace the situation and opportunity that this scenario provides.”