Behind the scenes in the BSB OB truck: the key roles and responsibilities

The 2017 British Superbike season is heading into its final stages, with the remaining three rounds forming part of the ‘Showdown’.

Silverstone was the last stop on the championship prior to the Showdown, and it was there where this writer was invited into the British Superbikes outside broadcast (OB) truck. Richard Coventry, who has been the television director for the MCE British Superbikes series for the past twelve years, is our guide to the Televideo truck. In the second and final piece, we talk about the various roles involved in live motor sport broadcasting.

As referenced in the first piece, Coventry sits on the front desk, with the monitor wall in front of him. But Coventry’s role as television director is significantly more encompassing than that. Coventry in his role speaks to all the key players around him within the British Superbikes production crew, from the producers through to the commentators, commonly known as ‘talkback’ where information travels back and forth between the various parties.

“I sit in the middle of talkback communication between myself, the Eurosport producer, the camera operators, the VT operators, the sound crew, the engineers, the presenter, the commentators, but also race control, so I can speak to the race director if I need to,” Coventry explains.

The end-to-end process between an incident happening on-track, through to the television viewer hearing the story is fascinating. Because of the communication lines that Coventry has, it means that he can gather information on a riders’ condition from the medical centre, and then relay the facts to the commentators. “I talk to everybody effectively and disseminate the information coming back.”

Sitting next to Coventry is a race producer and a vision mixer. Communication across the front desk is vital. The primary role of the race producer is to keep an eye on emerging battles, deciding with Coventry whether to switch to the battle. Following the decision, the vision mixer cuts the pictures to cover said action. The race producer sits to the left of Coventry, with multiple timing screens in front of him on the monitor wall.

“Myself and the race producer will decide whether the battle for the lead has spread out, we’ll look down for a battle for fifth or a battle for 19th. We must make a judgement call on what the best thing to follow is, it’s not always the same outcome. We’ll prioritise what battle we think is more important for the race, for the championship and we will take a view on that.”

British Superbikes - running order
The Eurosport running order for the British Superbikes qualifying programme from Silverstone on Saturday 9th September 2017.

Behind the trio on the front desk is the Eurosport programme producer and the production assistant (PA). Unlike in Formula 1 or MotoGP, the British Superbikes OB truck controls both the race feed and the Eurosport pictures, hence why there is both a race producer and programme producer. The programme producer writes the running order for the Eurosport show, whilst the production assistant at a high-level ensures the show does not fall off the air. “We do have to think on our feet, the running order has some leeway,” explains Coventry, “but everything is timed down to a second.”

“The PA tells us whether we’re over, under or on-time based on the running order and the event, whether we need to adapt the running order to keep us on-time. If there is a red flag, we might have to consider moving breaks, and it is the PA’s duty to communicate that back to Eurosport. And, to work out, further down the running order later in the day, the things that we need to change to make sure that we’re on time.”

Like with Sky’s Formula 1 programming, many other countries also take Eurosport’s British Superbikes output, and it is the responsibility of the PA to communicate any changes to the other channels. “The PA communicates with the rest of the World Feed recipients, such as Setanta Africa, Sky New Zealand, the people who are taking it live elsewhere to let them know if there’s been any changes to the schedule of the event, so they may want to change what they’re doing as well,” Coventry tells me.

Alongside the key roles, there are other important pieces of the jigsaw. Coventry also referenced the on-air presentation team, the camera operators, an editor, two assistant producers, four replay operators, riggers, amongst many more people behind the scenes. “It does go off successfully, I suppose that’s a relative term! It’s like the proverbial duck on the pond isn’t it, the legs are going ten to the dozen underneath, but the ducks are smooth on the surface!”

“It’s pretty labour intensive, you’ve got to have an operator for most cameras, if we’re live we need a live gallery PA. We couldn’t reduce this beyond where we are without affecting the output. It’s a fairly slick and tight operation. There’s a lot to consider, but fortunately there’s enough of us to think of it all.”

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Behind the scenes in the BSB OB truck: the monitor wall

The 2017 British Superbike season is heading into its final stages, with the remaining three rounds forming part of the ‘Showdown’.

Silverstone was the last stop on the championship prior to the Showdown, and it was there where this writer was invited into the British Superbikes outside broadcast (OB) truck. Richard Coventry, who has been the television director for the MCE British Superbikes series for the past twelve years, is our guide to the Televideo truck.

The main component of any OB truck is the wall of video monitors, which is where most of the focus lies. At a very high level, the monitor wall is where the director can see the variety of sources. For Coventry and his team, this can consist of around 13 track cameras and two pit lane cameras.

The size of the operation massively depends on the series, those of you who read my MotoGP piece with Dorna’s Managing Director Manel Arroyo will know that Dorna have around 150 cameras per race! Nevertheless, the principles behind the outside broadcast truck are similar.

“The monitor wall is a multi-viewer, so its eight monitors split with lots of sources. Every source that’s available to me in the vision mixer is on the monitor,” Coventry explains. There is a left bank (with two monitors), the four centre monitors seen above and a right bank (with two further monitors).

The centre bank of monitors is where Coventry’s attention is for much of the time. “I’ve got 13 track cameras directly in my eye line, underneath the main programme output (PGM). Next to that is the vision mixer preview (EDT PVW – PVW) so what is coming next,” Coventry says.

As you may expect, the track cameras are ordered by their position on the circuit. So, track camera one, controlled by Phil, is positioned at Copse (identified on the screenshot above as 1 Phil). Further round the track, Matt is controlling track camera six at Club opposite the Formula 1 pit lane, and so on and so forth.

A special case is track camera eight, identified above as 8 Dodgy. The reason for this is that the camera can double up and act as two different cameras. In this instance, the camera can see the bikes entering and exiting the arena section. This is common place at tracks where there are tight complexes, or the layout is small enough to allow multiple uses of one camera (the camera high up above the start-finish straight at Monte Carlo is another example of this).

The two graphic operators (GFX and GFX 2) sit up in Race Control with the time keepers. The left-hand and right-hand bank of monitors feature repeating sources.

“I’ve got four replay machines, which are called EVS W, X, Y and Z respectively. Each replay machine can record up to six sources,” Coventry explains. Both sides also contain the off-air output for the channels that British Superbikes are broadcasting on (O/A 1, O/A 2, and Quest), the two pit lane cameras (RF1 Chris and RF2 John) and the big screen output around the circuit.

Eurosport use the two pit lane cameras for their pre and post-session presentation, controlled also from the centralised OB truck. “Because of the unique way British Superbikes is run, as well as directing the race production, we also do Eurosport’s presentation. In MotoGP or F1, you would have a BT or Sky Sports truck and then an international World Feed truck, where the UK broadcaster would sit downstream. For the superbikes, unless there is a clash with World Superbikes, we do everything.”

The most interesting part of the side banks is a camera identified as ‘Q-Ball‘. “We control the Q-Ball camera from the truck. The camera this weekend is at Woodcote, coming into the start-finish straight, it’s very close to the track so we wouldn’t place a camera operator there, it gives us a fast speed shot,” Coventry notes. The benefit of doubling some elements up is so that nothing can be missed.

Lastly, specific to the left-hand side are the raw timing screens (P1P2 and P3), and the final satellite output (Line 1). Adrian Bourne, normally sitting to the left of Coventry, will use the timing screens to keep an eye on any emerging battles and on any fallers. One thing readers may notice that is not here is any source on-board cameras. The reason is cost related: the cost of live on-board cameras for motorcycling is significantly more than their four-wheel counterparts. Some On-board footage however is produced for the BSB YouTube channel by Drift Innovation.

British Superbikes - OB truck - buttons.jpg

Below the wall of video monitors is a series of buttons, known more formally as the vision mixer, responsible for slicing the final live product together. There are four repeating banks, each correlating to the sources in the screenshots above. On each bank, there are buttons for the 13 track cameras, the two pit lane cameras and four replay mixers. “It’s layers of vision mixer, cascading into the layer below, so we can make layered complicated effects if we wanted to,” Coventry explains to me.

Each layer also contains a variety of lime green buttons, generated before the live show. “All the green buttons here are macros, which are things written in advance, they’re complicated moves that you wouldn’t be able to build live so we build them in advance. For example the start lights animation is a macro, the team boxes, changing the name of the team boxes, these are stored in the mixer, as is the BSB bug and the timing graphics as well.”

The detail above covers the technical element, including the variety of outputs and graphics. But every television product has a human touch to it, and British Superbikes is no different. The technical side of television production is only one side of a complex story…

British Superbikes - OB truck - Monitor Wall Left 2.jpg

Olympic observations

Motor sport may be the main focus of this writer’s attention, but for two weeks every four years, an event comes around which dominates television viewing both here in the UK and abroad: the Olympic Games.

There are a few aspects that I wanted to touch on in this post which still has some relevance to motor sport and Formula 1.

Graphics simple, but effective
The Rio 2016 graphics set has not changed very much from those on display at both the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 games, meaning it has now been used for at least eight years. The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin used a modified version of the previous graphics set. What is interesting to me is the difference between Formula 1’s graphics set and the Olympic set. I dare say that the Olympic graphics set is stuck in the mid-2000s, but it has not changed in recent years.

F1’s graphics display multiple pieces of information on-screen at the same time, whereas the Olympics goes for a ‘less is more’ approach. I guess it is also a sense of familiarity for the latter given that the Olympics is firmly aimed at bringing in a casual audience. Both serve different purposes and that should be recognised. It would be interesting though seeing Olympic graphics stuck over the top of a F1 race. I suspect fans would find them too intrusive.

One similarity between the F1 and Olympic Games is the slow-motion shots. The first week has seen a lot of superb slow-motion shots from Joe Clarke’s victory in the canoe slalom to the diving events, there have been a number of slow-motion shots which no doubt will be repeated in the closing video packages next weekend. We also saw the bike cam in the cycling team pursuit, although the quality of the camera was not great thanks to the amount of rattling.

Is 455 BBC staff ‘too many’?
Back in April, the BBC confirmed that they would be sending 455 staff to the Olympics in Rio. Some of those 455 are freelancers, whilst the amount BBC have sent to Rio pales in comparison to the over 2,000 strong personnel that NBC have sent to Rio. Despite this, the BBC’s coverage (and number of 455) has attracted criticism from the likes of the Daily Star, Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

The comments that I have seen are your usual “too many presenters” or why are there so many production staff. Neither of which fully take into account the scale of the event. BBC One has been live on air from 13:00 to 04:00 every day, around 15 hours. BBC Four has been on air for the same length. Combine that with the running of the Red Button channels. On top of that, there is both online and BBC Radio 5 Live to consider.

Firstly, regarding the on-air staff, including presenters. Presenters do not present on-air and go home. Presenters also research, rehearse, record. Research so that they know what they’re talking about, rehearse so that the end product is as slick as possible and then record any VT’s that need to be done. Now consider doing that over 15 consecutive days. You cannot have one presenter, you need multiple presenters to cover each event and/or channel.

The same applies for commentators. Two commentators per event, 15 to 20 events and the numbers quickly add up. The numbers and facts that commentators have recited, chances are that a researcher has done that for them or (more likely), they have prepared and watched back historical tapes of that event. To bring it back to Formula 1: take David Croft or Ben Edwards. Throughout the Winter they will no doubt have re-watched the 2015 season to ensure that they are ready and prepared for every race for the following season.

Aside from on-air, there are those people off-air that keep the show running: resource managers so that everyone knows what they are doing, camera operators, sound supervisors, production co-ordinators, VT editors, interpreters and a whole host of other people who play a small but significant part in the coverage (I’ve picked a few out here, there are hundreds more). Without the talented men and women behind the camera, the show does not go on. Just because we don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Without VT editors, you can’t tell a story to the wider audience. Without interpreters, you don’t know what the winning athlete from a foreign country has said. Of course, this is not just Olympics related: you need this in any form of sport, including motor sport. At the end of the day, if you want to expand your remit, you have to expand your resources. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the BBC’s coverage from Rio, and I don’t think I would want it any other way. The days of presenting from the ‘London studio’ have long passed.

Olympics reaps rewards of free-to-air coverage
The beauty of the Olympics is its accessibility on television. Live, wall-to-wall television coverage on BBC One and BBC Four means that the Olympics can reach the largest number of viewers possible. Saturday’s coverage peaked with 9.4 million viewers on television, with 17.2 million global browsers accessing the BBC Sport website. These are brilliant figures all around, and shows how events benefit from being on free-to-air television.

Would the Olympics do anywhere near as well hidden behind a pay-wall? I doubt it. The Sydney Morning Herald website has a fantastic read looking at the extremely restrictive Olympic rights that extend far beyond television into the sponsorship world. I do not want to regurgitate the article, as there are a lot of fascinating points that I could note.

The key bit comes from Simon Morris, who is Fairfax Media’s (SMH’s owner) national video news editor. He says that the article “is not a complaint. We sign up to these rules as a part of a contract that allows us to send journalists. We could decide not to not do that and just rely instead on our statutory fair dealing rights under the Copyright Act, but we believe we have the best sports writers in the country and not sending them in return for being able to run more video would be a poor deal for you, our audience.”

The Olympics is a juggernaut if you’re part of the event. If you are not part of the event, then you are a complete outsider for that short time frame every four years.

What went wrong with A1 Grand Prix?

Whilst the eyes of the motor sport world this past week have been marking twenty years since the tragic San Marino Grand Prix weekend in which Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed, today marks another anniversary in the motor sport calendar. Of course, in comparison to the above, this anniversary is a ‘dot’ in the grand scheme of things, however it is also worth covering in its own respect. Today marks five years since the A1 Grand Prix series ran its final hurdle. The date was Sunday 3rd May, as the 2008-09 season came to a conclusion with Adam Carroll winning both the sprint and feature races for Ireland.

But, where did it all go wrong for A1 Grand Prix? The series launched in late 2004 to much fanfare, billing itself as the ‘World Cup of Motor Sport’. Instead of it being team versus team, the series was distinctively country versus country. One car per country. Sky Sports’ were one of the major backers from a broadcasting perspective for the series, with an on-site studio for the very first race from Brands Hatch in September 2005. Georgie Thompson presented the show alongside Andy Priaulx. Ben Edwards and John Watson were in the commentary box for the World Feed with Lee McKenzie down in pit-lane. Great Britain’s hopes rested on Robbie Kerr, who was Team GB’s representative for the majority of A1 Grand Prix’s life span. Other familiar names to watch out for included Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg, Brazil’s Nelson Piquet Jnr and France’s Nicolas Lapierre. A1 Grand Prix had this likeability factor that no other motor sport series had at that time, a ‘feel good’ factor.

Sky had high hopes for the series, so much so that the first race displaced Sky’s Premier League coverage off Sky Sports 1, a rare occasion. The first weekend got off to a flying start for Sky, the race action was largely good, and viewing figures averaged a quarter of a million viewers across several hours encompassing ‘as live’ coverage of the sprint race and the feature race that followed live. In comparison, their Formula 1 programmes typically average around 700,000 viewers. Even though the numbers were much lower than their football ratings, for a channel with not much live motor sport, it was a great number to build up on.

The problem with any series held in the Winter is that it means that the majority of the races must take place over in Asia, with only the start and end of the year in Europe. As it turned out, the first season calendar was fairly well laid out. The first three races were in Europe, before heading out to Asia. The problem is though, that any series looking to build an audience is going to struggle to get any audience for races live at 06:00 in the morning in Europe (it probably didn’t help either that Sky stayed in London for these races instead of sending Thompson et al. to the races, this being the case until the very end). For A1 Grand Prix, there wasn’t much way around it, and to be honest, I didn’t mind at all. In my view, there was a gap in the market for a Winter motor sport series which A1 Grand Prix filled very well. That made it a ‘draw’ in my eyes, it gained extra exposure as a result of having races during Formula 1’s off season. Whether it capitalised on that though, is a separate point altogether. At the time, it felt like a great alternative to Formula 1 with its sprint and feature race format and four Qualifying segments.

It has to be said that there were a few amateurish moments on display during its tenure, most notably the debacle that was the 180 degree turn in China during the 2006-07 season that many cars struggled to navigate. Sadly this video fails to make it onto its YouTube channel, however, the fact that one exists shows how it was above the kerb where social media activity is concerned. Deep in the depths of Twitter is ‘A1GP Insider‘, an official A1 Grand Prix account who joined in March 2009. If you were in control of that very short lived account, please, do come forward! Whilst we can laugh about the struggles in China, the scheduling issues that plagued the series were not a laughing matter and were tipped over the edge significantly in their final season. Within about a period of a year or two, A1 Grand Prix had turned from a good series starting to make an impression, to a farce.

Their issues, however, ran deeper. It is perhaps no coincidence that their final season was also their first in a new deal with Ferrari, which should have lasted from the 2008-09 season to the 2013-14 season. A ten race calendar turned into a seven race calendar. I won’t claim to have inside knowledge, but clearly the change of car and the Ferrari deal was negotiated badly and effectively killed the series. Whilst A1 Grand Prix should have been heading to Surfers’ Paradise in October 2009, their cars were still stuck in London. It seems clear to me that A1 Grand Prix jumped the gun with its Ferrari deal, especially during the worldwide recession, the series should have waited until they were more financially stable before agreeing to these deals. I do miss A1 Grand Prix. Yes, we can remember the stupid moments, but also, the country versus country formula provided some extremely good racing, the Durban street track a notable favourite.

The next Winter series set to take the limelight is Formula E. Most of their timeslots are friendly to a European audience, but is unusually on a Saturday, so it’ll be interesting to see how that fares. As for A1 Grand Prix, would I like to see it back in some form? I’d love to see it back. One day.

A day at Silverstone

So, yesterday was interesting! Fantastic, brilliant, a downright scary drive home, and many other emotions can be pitched in to yesterday’s day. But what a great day it was, and one that I won’t forget for a while. So, what happened? Firstly, a little revelation. Before yesterday, I had, despite being a fan of motor sport for 15 years, never been to a motor race. Considering I run a motor sport related blog, that might come across as surprising! The reasoning behind that is because no one I’m related to is really a motor sport ‘nut’ like myself, and I’d never really found the opportunity to ask any friends (partially because I’d have no clue as to whether they’d be interested – there are a few motor sport nuts, but I’d never pluck up the courage to ask, or vice versa – anyway).

I was planning another usual weekend, watch the F1 and stay in, no doubt following the football in the afternoon. That changed on Saturday when a friend asked if I wanted to go along with him to Silverstone the next day for round one of the FIA World Endurance Championship. Hell yes! A no brainer for me, and clearly for the 43,000 others that went to Silverstone too on Sunday. At £40.00 a ticket, I work that out at about £1.7 million worth of ticket sales that Silverstone made for race day. You can’t complain about the ticket price: six and a half hours of racing, paddock access, a pit lane walk, free roaming around the track, what more could you want? The only thing that saddens me is that Silverstone can have the F1 race day prices in excess of £100, yet sell over 100,000 tickets. But we should take the 43,000 figure as a positive, and hopefully that goes up in years’ to come, it deserves to.

The closest I had come to watching a motor race before yesterday would be an F1 test session, on a cold murky day in February 2001. Memories include standing on the outside of Luffield watching the Arrows and Jordan testing. But apart from that, nothing else. After successfully navigating the M45 and M1 for the first time ever (I passed my test four months ago), we arrived just before the start of the FIA Formula 3 European Championship race, won by Antonio Fuoco. We seated ourselves in the main straight grandstand, moving ourselves around the circuit as the day went on. The gap between that race and the start of the 6 Hours of Silverstone went surprisingly quick. We headed over to the pit lane (which, it is worth noting, the Silverstone Wing looks amazing in person), and took a stroll down it, swerving in and out of people. It was fairly packed! Back in paddock we caught a glimpse of Karun Chandhok, although admittedly jealously levels went up a few notches when a few other people we were with informed us that they had seen Mark Webber, Allan McNish and Anthony Davidson! Yeah, slightly jealous…

A shot of the Toyota motor home in the Silverstone paddock - Round 1 of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship.
A shot of the Toyota motor home in the Silverstone paddock – Round 1 of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship.

We positioned ourselves in the Becketts complex for the start of the main showpiece race, which was great for many different reasons, notably the fact that we could see the majority of the circuit: Copse through to Stowe almost, and the new first section. We stayed there for the first hour and beyond, as the heavens opened it made for interesting reading as the Toyota and Audi’s duelled it out, along with a minor annoyance. The tarmac run off areas. As the drizzle began, many drivers’ took the liberty of going straight on at the second part of Becketts, without an attempt of turning in. Just a minor bugbear worth mentioning.

Being a ‘newbie’ in going to races, the main point of interest to me was the sound. From the grandstand, most of the cars, from LMP1 down to the GTE-A class sounded fairly similar, however the difference was clear from track side between Becketts and Copse. I’d been reliably informed to keep an eye sound of the Audi’s. Boy was it different! Distinct, and stood out a mile when down at track side. Each lap, as one by one the cars went by, the Audi was noticeable. I liked it, personally. Overall, in the ‘how loud is loud’ argument, the sound yesterday was very, very loud! As this was my first motor race, there was no comparison for me, but in any case, it definitely felt loud.

Schumacher and Hill colliding, and many more moments have taken place over the years here, no longer in use and untouched.
Schumacher and Hill colliding, and many more moments have taken place over the years here, no longer in use and untouched.

After lunch, we moved round to Luffield. One of the brilliant things about yesterday was being able to position myself wherever I wanted, which, as it is a motor race, I wanted to experience. I don’t want to go to a motor race and sit in one position, I want to go and experience it from many different angles, different corners. I think it also makes you appreciate more the amount of effort that goes into preparing race weekends up and down the country, week in and week out, that makes race day what it is. It was the little things like that which made the day for me, being able to stand at Luffield, stand at Copse, both in the wet and dry, the same corners that I have seen legends race through year in, year out on TV. That’s what I found great. Then, we came across Bridge. A piece of history, but no longer in use, which saddened me. I’m surprised it hasn’t been utilised in some way, at least yesterday, the grass in that section looked long and untouched in quite a while.

The day ended back on the start finish straight as the 6 Hours of Silverstone prematurely came to an end. It was the right decision to call off the race. To be honest, the Safety Car decision confused me, however the weather in the twenty minutes following rapidly got worse. I’ve criticised some decisions concerning red flags in the past, however, actually having an attended a motor race as a fan now, I understand definitely the decisions from a ‘fan in attendance’ perspective. Getting out of Silverstone was a nightmare, but beyond their control. Had the weather been nice, no doubt some would have stayed for the podium presentation, thus, a more controlled traffic flow. Had the race continued until 18:00, the journey home would have been even more worse yesterday. I avoided the M1 as I was worried about the spray at 70mph, but the A5 was just as bad: multiple rivers, and many, many scary moments! In any case, a Toyota 1-2 and Porsche in third meant that we went home happy.

But, what a day. What an experience. From start to finish, it was full of great memories and moments that will last a while! I think it is fair to say it had everything a fan could wish for with great racing, great access and even typical British weather so that fans can experience the cars in all weather! If you’re ever asked to make a decision in the future: watch F1 on TV, or watch racing in the flesh at your local circuit. Choose the latter. It’s a decision you won’t regret.