It’s a hard job running four 24-hour sports television channels when virtually all sport worldwide has been canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. But that’s the task facing BT Sport Chief Operating Officer Jamie Hindhaugh in these challenging times.
Other broadcasters have looked to archive content, eSports and virtual sports to fill schedules and BT Sport has started showing classic action, documentaries and magazine shows to fill the gaps. It also has live content from WWE–the only major sports organization still holding events.
Technology is vital
But Hindhaugh wanted to do more. Since he joined BT Sport from the BBC in 2012, technology and broadcast innovation has been at the forefront of the organization’s attempts to establish itself in the U.K. market.
BT Sport has pioneered live 4K and 8K transmissions and is using 5G-based remote production to enhance its programming. Hindhaugh believed there was a technological solution to creating new content that maximized BT’s portfolio of television rights and on-screen talent while also keeping his team safe. He also wanted the content to reflect the challenges people at home are facing rather than finding ways to circumvent them.
“How can BT Sport still be relevant when there’s no live sport?” was the question on Hindhaugh’s lips as leagues around the world shut down.
“I thought it was important to do more than just repeats and old games so I spoke with my chief engineer Andy Beale to [see how this could be done]. The welfare of our teams normally based at the studios was paramount so we needed to restrict the people who actually want to the studio.
“Social distancing is a challenge in an outside broadcast truck or gallery so unless we could actually solve these issues then I wouldn’t sign off on any new programming.”
The solution was a virtual studio. BT has been using remote production for some time, with 4G-enabled cameras sending images back to the studios for processing. The virtual studio decentralizes many functions–such as audio, vision and mixing–to equipment based in production staff’s homes.
This means programs can be captured, processed and played out without the need to be in a studio, where a skeleton workforce is there to keep the lights on.
Meanwhile, on-screen talent is provided with video and audio equipment to create feeds that can be turned into a professional-grade broadcast. The equipment handed to talent differs depending on technical proficiency and connectivity. Presenter Jake Humphrey has a top-end set up at his home but other pundits might use an iPhone camera.
“The challenge has been getting it all working and adjusting,” says Hindhaugh. “Our teams are used to working in a live environment next to each other but now have to take into account possible delays in communication.”
Hindhaugh is full of praise for Beale, BT Sport’s production partners, and the talent themselves: “I’m not sure this has been done before.”
Next week, BT Sport will have seven live shows covering football, rugby union and MotoGP. Some are magazine shows, others are retrospectives, and some–such as the recommissioned The Football’s On–aim to offer light relief during a period of crisis (Inevitably, the new series is called The Football’s Not On).
Meanwhile, presenter Craig Doyle is presenting Director’s Cuts of BT Sport documentaries and there will be a live debate show looking back on the UEFA Champions League.
Looking to the future
When asked whether BT Sport would be looking at eSports content, such as the recent Virtual Grand Prix on Sky Sports F1, Hindhaugh said the focus was on maximizing existing formats and talent
In the short term, the system allows BT Sport to produce new content. In the long term, it could accelerate the organization’s remote production strategy and allow it to diversify its workforce. For example, the ability to perform certain roles at home could open the door for disabled candidates, part-time workers, and those who have childcare commitments. The learnings will also help BT’s efforts at creating personalized, object-based broadcasts.
“Anything we do is not a short-term fix,” explains Hindhaugh. “I am really keen that as an industry we become more open.”
But above all, BT Sport will hope the range of programming will ensure people don’t unsubscribe or pause their subscriptions until live sport returns. The cost is not insignificant and people mainly pay up because they want live action.
“It’s a challenging time for all broadcasters,” he tells me. “But sport is something that brings people together and people look for escapism.
“Our offering reflects the state of the nation.”