TX Sport on a new era for sports production (part two)

In the second section of a far-reaching two-parter, TX Sport’s head of production, James Poole, discusses the cost pressures of modern sports production and the possibilities of second screen apps.

Is television coverage of sports genuinely getting cheaper to produce?

It’s important to remember that we operate in a different part of the market to the likes of Sunset + Vine and IMG, and the events we work on are generally on a smaller scale to things like network horse racing and premiership football. But that said, I think most production companies are under pressure from broadcasters and clients to do more with less money, and ultimately we need to keep working to find additional efficiencies in how we produce coverage of sports events.

The majority of our live TV work is undertaken for sports governing bodies and event promoters that require a compact but high quality world feed, typically with 10 cameras or less.

There are a number of boutique OB suppliers operating in this part of the market and we are lucky that facility hire costs are extremely competitive. As a result, we are able to produce very high quality live coverage of events, whilst still remaining very affordable for our clients.

One area we have been very focussed on recently is working with the new local TV licensees and discussing their plans for sports output. It is interesting because suddenly you have all of these new broadcasters setting up shop and they clearly see sport as a key way to drive audience numbers, but due to the nature of local TV they are all looking at ways to get affordable sports programming but without losing quality.

We are working with several partners to offer a combined solution to local TV stations, which we will be revealing more about at the end of June.

You had a lot of crews working at the Olympics. What did you learn from the experience?

We provided ENG crews at London 2012 to support production operations for non-rights holders. We were based from the ITN studio facility at Westfield Stratford and London Media Centre in Westminster, meaning we were able to mobilise very quickly when needed.

It was a fantastic experience, and we learned a lot. One of the main changes we implemented after London was to transition from tape to completely file-based workflows on all of our productions. Lots of colleagues in the industry have been quick to point out that we were a little late to the tapeless party – but for what we were doing and the investment it would of required to go tapeless, at the time it didn’t make business sense for us. Everything worked fine for London 2012, but moving forward we are fully committed to doing everything using file based workflows.

Sochi 2014 is the next major multi-sport event for us, and like with London, we will be providing low-cost digital ENG crews, primarily for UK based media outlets. But this time we are also in discussions with one international federation about working with them to develop a special Sochi themed micro-site and companion smartphone app, which will host regular video news round-ups from a stand-up position near the coastal cluster, evening analysis with former athletes, and other feature interviews and video content around their sport for the duration of the Winter Olympics.

Second screen apps are popular with broadcasters at the minute, but how difficult is it to monetise them effectively?

Mobile is really very interesting, because if you look at smartphone ownership it is fairly even across most social demographic measures, and that presents a good opportunity for sports content marketing.

You have a few ways to monetise these apps and the method you choose depends on the nature of your property: are you a sports club, a federation, a major event, and also the size of your potential audience for such an app. You can almost compare it to the age old free-to-air vs subscription TV argument: if it is free you get a bigger audience and you can monetise that through creative advertising and sponsorship, or alternatively you put it behind a pay wall and you significantly reduce the size of your audience, but you have the lure of potentially generating higher revenues.

Lots of sports properties get mobile wrong, though, and in these instances it is usually because the content sucks. I have seen some beautifully designed sports apps, but if that design isn’t backed up with extremely regular, quality content, then you are missing the point and it is a wasted investment.

Most people now have a smartphone and carry it with them all day, and that has led to a whole new level of digital sports consumerism. If you know an app is being regularly updated with news, photos, videos and other interesting content, then you will keep going back to it throughout the day, and if that content is compelling enough you will pay for it.

If you are going to do a sports app, then the best advice is to keep the design simple, and the content regular if you want people to keep coming back and to potentially pay for the privilege.

How are second screen applications evolving. What is the base spec in 2013?

I think the most noticeable evolution with apps is the way in which we approach them from a content production point of view, and also the ways in which they are used to engage directly with fans.

The technology doesn’t really change that much, but you now increasingly see job adverts for roles like mobile content managers – dedicated individuals within organisations that have responsibility for just pumping out content for apps. Within the sports industry everyone now realises how important mobile is, and I think most people would recognise it does require a bit of investment to get it right. The other thing that you almost take for granted but that also evolves, is the creativity of the sports federations, clubs, leagues, rights holders and sponsors in leveraging apps for all sorts of different things – some work and others don’t, but you are constantly learning and trying new things.

The big thing that has got people talking recently from a technology point of view is C-Cast from EVS. Sky Sports trialled it for the Champions League Final at Wembley for fans that had their tablet app, but it wasn’t available live. My feeling is that it is an over-engineered solution to a demand from fans that doesn’t really exist, and the additional infrastructure you require to make all of those ISO camera feeds available to fans would only really make it a viable option for the top 5% of major international events.

What are the technological hurdles you still have to surmount in your day to day operations?

Being totally honest, we don’t really have any massive technological hurdles when we do events – hopefully that means we’re doing something right!

Where do you think the industry is heading when it comes to mobile and the second screen? What innovations in technology or consumer behaviour are coming down the pipe?

I honestly don’t think that viewing habits will change that much, in the sense that most people will always have a preference to watch live sport on a big TV screen in the highest definition possible. However, with media convergence it doesn’t really matter what your pipe of delivery is anymore or what the platform is – we will get to a stage where all sports content is available at any time across any device, with the only difference being the size of your screen. I think inevitably we will see more second screen apps that are really optimised by rights holders to compliment and enhance the viewing experience, and I think a natural part of that will be a much wider use of data that will probably be available exclusively via these apps in order to drive demand from fans.

Ultimately it will mean the end of the traditional, one dimensional viewing experience.

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