Swiss TV gears up for women’s downhill this weekend in Crans-Montana
England has cricket, Canada Ice hockey and Switzerland … downhill skiing! No other sport generates quite the same level of enthusiasm among swiss TV viewers, young and old. Not surprising, then, that the country’s public broadcaster pulls out the stops when it comes to covering the various ski competitions which are a feature of the winter sport season.
All the ski races are shown live on French-speaking channel RTS 2, Italian-speaking RSI 2 and German-speaking SRF 2. But the public group is also the host broadcaster on any race which takes place in Switzerland, the next one being the female downhill and combined slalom and downhill race on 13 and 14 February in Crans-Montana.
«We have an 18 camera set-up along the 10,5 km race, two more than last year. We use a mixture of Sony HD 1500 and HD 1400’s. Most of them will be fixed on 4 to 8 metre high towers situated at 50 metres from the race to respect safety requirements. Four of our cameramen will be skiing to follow the race with portable cameras on their shoulders,» said Thierry Overney, the RTS’s operational director.
Risks of using drones
Strict safety regulations mean that the cameras must be placed behind the first safety net barrier, hence the need for powerful lenses, some of them with a 88 x zoom to get close-ups of the skiers’ facial expressions. A couple of cameras will be fixed on cranes and a Polecam will also be used to get images from above the race.
«We have tested drone technology but found it simply wasn’t safe enough. And the most recent experiments with drones on skiing competitions have proved our point: just before Christmas quadruple world champion Marcel Hirscher was nearly hit by a crashing drone during the Madonna di Campiglio slalom in Italy. Clearly, we can’t afford to take such a risk. A drone system weighs around 20 kilos, if anything happens, the impact can be lethal,» he cautioned.
Rights holder Infront has since banned the use of drones on every ski race. Helicopters are another way of getting the bigger picture but the technology is too expensive for the swiss broadcaster: «One minute rental costs ten Swiss Francs and our budget won’t stretch that far,» he admitted.
Cold weather conditions are par for the course but have to be taken into account: a lot of care goes into ensuring the cameras stay warm at all times, even if the Sony kit is robust. «We never turn them off to avoid any freezing of the electric circuits. We also make sure they are not subjected to big temperature changes: we don’t want any condensation on the lenses,» he explained. The cameras are thus protected by a blanket and two waterproof covers. «We create a sort of micro climate to make sure the cameras remain at a constant heat», Overney added.
The RTS is also hoping to install a GoPro 360° camera at the start of the race and has asked Infront to authorise it. «We will be using it to get non live shots which will then be added into the live coverage. The picture quality is not as good but as the shots are not live we should be able to work on them and improve them before broadcasting,» he explained.
Pressure and unpredictabilty of live sport
One of the features of the combined slalom and downhill race on the 14th of February is that the team has only an hour and half to change the camera set up between the two races. «It can be quite stressful, because as we carry out the live coverage for the international signal we can’t afford to make any mistakes. We have to move and change around nine cameras out of the 18 on the slalom,» Overney said.
The RTS sends around 50 production staff on site to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible. «Everyone is fully briefed and knows exactly where and when to intervene.» Having said that, complications can arise unexpectedly and have to be dealt with.
«We have just been asked to cover another ski race on Monday 15th, to replace a competition that was cancelled due to a lack of snow earlier in the year in Maribor. It’s a bit of an organisational nightmare: staff who have been working during the weekend are expected to take three days off, which means getting a new team on site but we are also due to cover an important football match which takes place just after the race and have to make plans for that too,» he said.
The RTS has one big OB van on site which includes two different production set ups, one dealing with the first part of the race and the second with the finishing part of the race. This results from the way downhill skiing competitions are organised.
«There’s a two minute interval between the first 15 skiers. But after that, the interval between each competitor is only a minute and a half, which means that you have two skiers on the slope at the same time. Hence the need for two production desks. That’s why we use the biggest OB in our entire fleet. We could have decided to install two different trucks but we find this set up works for us,» Overney said.
Two other OB vans are on site, one for Austrian pubcaster ORF and the other for German broadcaster ZDF, an indication of the audience’s interest for ski competitions in both countries.
Cablecam and Spidercam for World Cup 2017
The broadcaster is planning to invest in some new technology to cover next year’s World Cup races: «We will be using a Cablecam, provided by ACS France, which will run for 8OO metres along the race. We are also looking at Spidercam technology,» he revealed. Paluche cameras which can be installed much closer to the slopes at ski level are also planned and will likely be a feature of next’s year’s coverage.
But skiers equipped with headcams are not on the cards just yet. «Google Cams are fun but they are not stable enough to ensure the quality we require. When skiers moves their heads, the images jerk up and down and it’s just not good enough for our purposes. But we are interested in the technology and hopefully manufacturers will soon find a way of making them more stable,» he indicated.
Like other broadcasters, the RTS knows that immersive viewing is a key trend for sport fans the world over and that downhill skiing is one of the sports best suited for it. If headcams are not used yet, the RTS has nevertheless settled for an interesting compromise. To give viewers that immersive feeling, they have equipped ex Swiss downhill world champion Bruno Kernen with a Steadicam, which he carries between his legs during a run down the Crans- Montana slope. The high quality images are broadcast just before the start of the race so that viewers can really feel what the skiers will be in for when they zoom down the slope.