The FA Cup returns to the BBC after six year absence with location virtual set, graphics

The FA Cup is a quintessentially English sporting competition, which is why England’s quintessential broadcaster, the BBC, is making such a deal out of having coverage of the knock-out football competition back after a six year absence from its schedules.

Surrounded by much publicity it broadcast its first live match on Friday 7 November, with highlights of the other First Round games on the following Saturday and Sunday.

The current FA Cup TV deal is split between the BBC and BT Sport. Facilities for both broadcasters are supplied by Arena Television, although the technical presentation and on-air style differ. A major feature of the BBC broadcast is its use of virtual studio graphics technology, which is an established component of Premier League highlights programme Match of the Day (MotD).

Part of the enduring appeal of the FA Cup is that the early rounds involve non-league clubs. The BBC’s first match of the campaign came from Cantilever Park, home of Northern Premier League Division 1 North side, Warrington Town. The opposition was Exeter City of League 2, who were beaten 1-0 on live TV.

Ian Finch, the series producer of MotD who directed presentation of the Warrington-Exeter game, acknowledges that the BBC was fortunate with the match allocation in this case. It also meant that some technology had to be tried out on location at a ground with few facilities for broadcasters. A Motion Analysis virtual graphics system is used for MotD at dock 10 but BBC Sport is using Stype Grip for location work. This was used in the broadcaster’s studio in Rio during the last World Cup and features in its FA Cup coverage.

“It was the first time we had used a virtual set outdoors,” he says. “We wanted to see how it worked in the wind and rain and it worked well, although there were a tough couple of days beforehand to get it up and running.”

Instead of using the MotD studio in dock 10 at MediaCityUK or a temporary booth at the location, the presentation by Dan Walker and his guests was done pitch-side in the open air. “It gives the whole feel of non-league football,” Finch says.

A nine-foot jib arm was brought in to provide the necessary stability for compositing the Stype virtual graphics into the same picture as the presenters. Finch says the graphics cards in the server did not work as well as they should have, producing 14 frames of delay instead of the expected four. There was also the problem of water getting into the cables but everything had been dealt with by the time of the rehearsal. “It was quite stressful but luckily it all worked,” Finch comments.

At the end of the match Finch says the intention had been to use the virtual graphics over a shot of the pitch but this could not be done because at the final whistle the overjoyed Warrington fans ran on to congratulate their team. “The pitch invasion meant we couldn’t use the system because having people behind the graphics kills it,” he explains.

A gantry was built on top of one of the stands for cameras and the commentary position. Additional floodlights were brought in to produce the correct look for TV, which Finch said “looked great on camera”. Arena TV supplied two of its units for the live coverage: the OB10 scanner, equipped with Sony MVS8000 vision mixer, Riedel intercom, a Pro Bel (Snell) Sirius Gold router and Calrec Audio Sigma console, and VT7, a large video and edit truck.

“Match coverage consisted of 15 cameras with an additional two dressing room cameras,” says Richard Yeowart, managing director of Arena TV. “There were an additional two cameras for the pitch side presentation area incorporating a Stype enabled jib.” Handheld cameras were also used for the links, while a Steadicam switched between pres work and some virtual graphics.

Footage from matches featured in the highlights programmes on Saturday and Sunday was provided by Arena’s OB9, OB10 and OB11, each with nine match cameras plus additional RF systems in two of the three cases (the third was postponed due to bad weather) for live links into the Final Score results show.

The BBC’s next live FA Cup game will be another Football League/non-league clash, with League 2 Hartlepool United taking on Blyth Spartans from the Northern Premier League Premier Division on 5 December. The hope must be for a repeat giant-killing performance to ensure at least one non-league presence in the Third Round. At that stage the BBC will switch to its regular football studio for presentation, although Finch says a new on the road set will be unveiled as well.

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