BT Sport fast tracks remote production plans due to Covid-19
By Tariq Saleh
BT Sport’s soccer coverage during the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the UK pay-television broadcaster’s long-term roadmap of creating more remote productions and will be enhanced by its extensive coverage of English rugby union’s top-tier Premiership, which resumes this week, chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh has told Sportcal.
The pay-TV giant became the first broadcaster in the country to air live soccer matches after the sport was halted by Covid-19, with coverage of Germany’s Bundesliga in May.
It followed this up with 20 live games in England’s Premier League when it resumed in June and last week broadcast the return of the Champions League and Europa League, European soccer’s club competitions.
BT has had a limited presence on site at the games across those competitions and will be adopting its soccer model for Premiership Rugby, with the company using this period to bring forward and embrace remote plans it had planned for the future.
In an interview with Sportcal, Hindhaugh said: “The way we will be producing the rugby, we will be using the model that we have built for the Premier League, that we use on the Champions League and Europa League and the Bundesliga when we did live studio shows during lockdown which is basically doing it remote. So when the games will be covered, we will have at least half of the people we would normally have on site but delivering the same quality output from a remote operating centre.
“It has been on our roadmap to look at more remote production and it was meant to play out by 2023, so our plan was brought ahead by three years to facilitate that and those learnings come from doing Bundesliga from people’s homes and commentary from people’s homes.
“With all these things you evolve your work flows and options and that gives us more choice for how we deliver the rugby. The key aspiration for me is to maintain the quality that is expected in our coverage and we will be able to do that so that was a big learning. It is no small achievement to change all of your work flows and deliver the same coverage.”
BT last week announced it will show every match played behind closed doors for the remainder of the Premiership season.
In what it described as a “ground-breaking agreement," the broadcaster said it will provide coverage of “more matches than ever before," beginning with all six matches in the opening round of the restart from this Friday.
Once fans are allowed back in stadiums, BT will return to showing selected matches exclusively live in each round as part of its four-year rights deal, which runs to 2021.
Premiership Rugby will finally make its return this week after being suspended since 16 March due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
The league is adopting the same model as the Premier League, which aired all of its matches for the rest of the season after it resumed.
BT teamed up with Electronic Arts, the developer and publisher of the popular FIFA video game, to create artificial crowd noise for its live Premier League games but will be using its own resources for rugby.
Hindhuagh explained: “Enhanced sound was something we rolled out first with the Bundesliga and then we adapted it with EA for our Premier League coverage but what we are doing for rugby is slightly different. We are creating our own audio stems using our own archive.
“We create 20 different audio stems that go down into the detail of whether a team is home or away so that it is relevant and then will play out in our BT Sport pick games. We will play out that enhanced sound to help give the audience the atmosphere you would normally get when you are watching from home.
“My big learning from doing it with the Premier League is you forget how important sound is to your viewing experience. So we are excited to bring that learning into our coverage of rugby.”
BT has held domestic rights to the Premiership since it launched in 2013 and opened discussions last month to renew its deal beyond next year.
The broadcaster’s existing rights deal is worth around £40 million ($52.3 million) per year and it made its final rights payment for this season in May despite the uncertainty over whether the league would resume this year.
Hindhaugh said the decision was about maintaining a good relationship with its long-time partner which he insists was key during the pandemic.
He said: “The strength of BT Sport is our relationships, whether that is with technology partners or with our rights-holders. If you are in a relationship and there is a proper relationship, you work together to get the best outcome for all. We have taken a very sensible and pragmatic approach, the season is back and therefore we are all in the right position and I think that is really important.”
Asked if the goodwill payment will help with renewal talks, he replied: “I do not see it as that cynical. I see it as how good partners can work together to make sure that they both come out of this crisis in the strongest possible position.”
As part of its Premiership coverage, BT will also work with the league and its clubs to offer eligible season ticket holders free coverage to home matches via the BT Sport App.
The BT Sport ‘Match Pass’ has been specifically designed for season ticket holders of participating clubs who are not BT Sport subscribers and cannot attend their home matches due to the current Covid-19 restrictions.
Under the initial agreement, BT will show all 57 remaining fixtures up until the Premiership Final, which is set for 24 October, although there will be the possibility for a limited number of fans to attend games in the coming months.
Commercial broadcaster Channel 5 will show four games free-to-air as part of its rights deal with the league.
The Premiership Rugby season will resume with Harlequins versus Sale Sharks.
An analysis of production techniques in a Covid-19 world will appear in the next issue of the Sportcal Insight digital magazine, out at the end of this month.