World Cup build-up: How BBC and ITV have planned out their joint TV coverage
Despite legal challenges from Fifa in the European courts, Word Cup coverage in the UK remains free to air by law and the BBC and ITV are joint rights holders for World Cup coverage. For 2014, ITV had first pick of England matches and following high-level meetings in December last year was happy to let the BBC screen the country’s late-night opening match against Italy on June 12, following up itself with the next two primetime games against Uruguay and Costa Rica. Once the tournament progresses, the BBC will have first pick of the round of 16 and semi finals, whilst ITV has first pick of the quarter finals. Both broadcasters will show the final.
If all that sounds like a complicated arrangement then it only mirrors the efforts that both broadcasters have had to make to produce the unilaterals. Phil Bigwood, Executive Producer, Football/London Olympics at BBC Sport, lists the main challenges as being “the infrastructure, the bureaucracy and the logistics of working out there,” which seems to cover most bases. But he adds: “In terms of everything that we can control we are as confident as we can be.”
Interestingly the BBC made the decision quite early on to occupy one of the 10 international studios at the IBC in Rio rather than attempting to construct its own facilities.
“This one’s quite different to the last couple that I’ve looked after in that we’ve partnered with Fifa and HBS for the main presentation and production areas which has been quite a recognition of the challenges that everyone’s facing. There has been a lot of collaboration in delivering the studio in particular,” states Bigwood.
The same attitude also extends round the dozen Brazilian venues, the Corporation’s operation primarily built on HBS infrastructure as “the cost and logistics of trying to run too much unilateral equipment out of those sites makes it prohibitive really.”
ITV has taken a different route, commissioning a studio located on the iconic Copacabana beach while its main production arm is based at the IBC. Roger Pearce, Technical Director, Sport at ITV though heartily agrees regarding the challenges. “The build up to Brazil has been similar to South Africa in that logistics are a challenge in every respect,” he says. “Brazil is also commercially complex to work in which has made the planning phase appear more risky than anticipated. The main technical challenge has been planning around 60Hz to 50Hz Frame Rate Conversion.”
Both broadcasters are operating as full 1080i 59.94 operations in Brazil. “We’ll perform all the standards conversion via Edge Computing coming back both in file and baseband delivery,” says Charlie Cope, Technical Executive, BBC Sport. “In terms of the operation itself it’s all HD.
“We have an Augmented Reality side of things that we’re integrating into the main operation and a lot of the core infrastructure round our main production hub is what I’d call standard kit, primarily an EVS and Avid operation in the post domain — it’s a well-trodden route in terms of the core operation. We’re doing some quite interesting stuff on the radio camera side of things, particularly around the beach area, which should deliver quite well along the direct optical links between various sites.”
While for ITV all production is based in Brazil, the BBC has split operations and has integrated remote production firmly into its workflow, building on its experience of London 2012 and taking less people to Brazil than to South Africa 2010, but still producing about 50% more programming.
“The primary part of the network output is based in Brazil and all the multimedia operation, and highlights and sports news is all based in Salford,” explains Cope. “We have remote access to kit and into the FIFA MAX servers, plus our own, allowing us to access content from back in the UK.
“From a technical perspective Brazil has thrown up a lot of challenges for us,” he adds. “It’s remote in terms of connectivity. It’s expensive to take people out there on site, but equally it’s quite expensive to supplement any connectivity from out there. Which is why we’ve gone down a mixed model route and balanced the two.”
Cope says the introduction of C-Cast into the remote workflows has been a benefit too, if not a game-changer per se. ‘We’ve done this type of stuff before and it’s building on that model,” he says. “Access to the cloud helps us integrate a cost effective layer into what we do. We’re mainly using it to access those additional streams of content.”
Second screen innovation
Extra streams of content are important for all broadcasters as the battle for viewers moves firmly online and onto the second screen. Indeed, ITV and Sky only last week inked a landmark deal for ITV content to be presented via Sky’s second screen app, Sky Go, all in time for the World Cup. Which perhaps has interesting implications for future rights deals.
Bigwood highlights the importance of being able to pull content from the FIFA MAX server. “It goes without saying that the whole multimedia side of things has grown hugely since the last tournament,” he says. “Highlights and match reruns, double headers on BBC 3, a lot of the online red button stuff, all of that will be pulled from MAX. The whole social media side is an issue we’re very keen to press. We’re building on what we’ve done on Match Of The Day around the live games, and are planning to do more.
“These events though are so much bigger than just TV nowadays, for us it’s about joining up the various different platforms.”
“What London 2012 did for us was change radically the expectation of our audience in terms of what we offered them and the additional options we have around feeds,” adds Cope. “Social media has grown and we have to fold that into the technology space around graphics and integration across different platforms.”
Planning for the future
Looking to the future is, of course, a perilous thing for broadcasters, and the BBC and ITV teams have two problems, one very near-term and one slightly longer. The first concerns what happens if England (28/1 outsiders to win the tournament, it has to be said) progress beyond the group stage and present a new schedule of matches to fulfill.
Pearce characterises this part of the project drolly as “coping with England’s rock strewn path to glory” and says it may necessitate a lot of fast and complex operational re-planning. Bigwood points out that a single central studio makes for a degree of operational simplicity and that any changes in plans only affect half a dozen people working in the dedicated England crew and the commentary teams.
Then though there is Rio 2016 (for the BBC at least) and Russia 2018 to consider. “Technically the main difference between 2010 and 2014 coverage is that the optimism surrounding 3D has been replaced by 4k,” says Pearce. “Let’s see how that develops between now and 2018.”
“I’ll be interested to see how the 4K trials go, especially as we at the BBC start moving into new contracts,” agrees Bigwood, speaking before news of the BBC participation in the Ultra HD trials became public. “That’s probably the next way forward. And from a production point of view the remote access to the server is very interesting, especially when you think how the model will move on in the next couple of years before the Rio Olympics.”