As governments across Europe begin to relax restrictions and allow sport to return during a pandemic, a production team in the UK has tacitly prepared. BT Sport, which typically produces and broadcasts live Premier League football in 4K HDR weekly, has removed almost its entire production team. Live football returns for the German Bundesliga in Europe this weekend, and producers, directors, and commentators will go live in makeshift home offices just steps from their normal sleeping quarters.
“We did 7 live shows remotely during the block each week,” said Jamie Hindhaugh, chief operating officer at BT Sport, in an interview with The edge. “You learn different tricks and characteristics and understand how different people interpret what you say.”
BT Sport’s production team is typically based in an office in Stratford, East London, and is often state of the art, such as 8K broadcasting. But almost the entire team is now working remotely after the UK government introduced home stay policies almost two months ago. We have seen UK TV channels and live entertainment shows adapt to the new rules in different ways in recent weeks. Some shows have stopped production altogether, others in environments where, at least for the audience, it looks like there is little social distance going on.
“From day one, we were determined to see that we were a sports network, not a news network,” said Hindhaugh. “It was important that we showed empathy to our audience and therefore acted under the same restrictions that our audience has. That’s why you saw everything from home without traveling. I didn’t think it was right for us to look at how we could handle this. “
Producing live sports is no easy task, and there is a team of producers, directors, and operators who ensure that replay of action and motion graphics are instantly displayed on your TV screen at home. Much of the kit used, such as image mixers or sound recording mixers, has been brought into people’s homes in recent weeks.
“The kit is smaller than you think because it is the top layer that is being separated,” says Hindhaugh. “So the servers and everything are still in Stratford.” Many of the challenges were to sync and separate everything that is normally used in a studio to work at home via 4G connectivity or broadband connections. “The same vision mixer that we use in a studio. The top front end is now in a director’s house. So you control the main vision mixer in the studio remotely,” Hindhaugh reveals. “It’s like driving a car, but you’re in a simulator.”
Teams can continue to communicate in real time to make critical decisions in a split second with the same talk-back intercom system they have used for years. “Talking back is important to be able to hear people properly,” explains Hindhaugh. “As long as you talk back and have the tool, you should be able to do it [remotely]. ”
BT Sport plans to broadcast seven games tomorrow. The main show includes two presenters in a studio in London. Six employees, including a cameraman, will be part of the main game studio to ensure the output is preserved. All other producers and directors will do their part from home.
Another two games are produced and directed entirely from home, with commentators also working at home. “There will be three people producing every game, all from a distance, all going live,” says Hindhaugh. For the five live games BT Sport is producing, Hindhaugh says: “We will have fewer than 10 people on site.”
In recent weeks, moderators and commentators have had to get used to doing some of the production aspects at home. BT Sport shipped cameras or even used smartphones to send interviews, depending on the connectivity and convenience of the moderators in operating the camera settings.
Surprisingly, none of these remote productions means a delay in what viewers see on the screen. Comments, repetitions of actions, graphics and everything you normally see and hear should work as usual.
The transition from BT Sport to remote production is something the team wants to continue regardless of the pandemic. “I don’t think we’ll ever work the way we did 10 weeks ago, and I see that as very positive,” said Hindhaugh. “After fighting against it for 6 weeks and accepting it, I suddenly think: ‘Well, I see my children every night, I do all my work as before, and if anything, I’m more productive. ‘Not just a show, the work from home has always been questioned, and I think there is now an acceptance that it works and you know what, people like it. “
BT Sport had planned to gradually switch some of this work to remote over the next four years, but the pandemic has certainly accelerated this. “One of our main concerns as an organization has been the green agenda and sustainability, and the only way we can see where we can really reduce the impact on what we do on the environment is from a distance,” says Hindhaugh. “You look around and the air feels cleaner. I am desperate to accept this, and I think as an industry we will help us become a more sustainable industry. “
Hindhaugh believes that this moment will also promote diversity and inclusion efforts as companies will be able to attract more employees to offer them a work-life balance that doesn’t require hours of travel every day.
This weekend’s Bundesliga also includes challenges related to social distance on the pitch and on grandstands, where fans usually cheer on a home team and mock their rivals. All of this adds to the atmosphere of a game when you watch TV. If games are played behind closed doors, this element will surely be missing.
BT Sport is examining what it can do about the lack of atmosphere when the Premier League returns, and has more control over game reporting. “I think at the moment we’re going to reflect the atmosphere that is there,” says Hindhaugh. “As a football fan it gets pretty fascinating because you will hear the tactics a little bit more.”
Crowd effects could be a way to create atmosphere, but it seems to be something that BT Sport absolutely wants to avoid. “When you start adding sound effects and crowd noise, it gets a little surreal,” says Hindhaugh. “We’re reviewing all of these options, and one thing I can tell you is that we’ll definitely be reviewing options for our audience when the Premier League comes back.”
It is clear that the appetite for a return of the football leagues is great. South Korea’s top league attracted 3.4 million viewers on Twitter last weekend. It is now a major test for the return of live football to Europe this weekend and a showcase for how TV production is changing during this pandemic. “It puts the ball back in the hands of production and creative colleagues,” says Hindhaugh. “Technology should always make it possible, it shouldn’t drive. This shows that you get flexibility and can give our creative colleagues the opportunity to do what they want to do in different ways. I find it exciting.”