More facilities are not necessarily an indication that a market sector is robust but when OB companies start to put more trucks on the road followed by a spate of acquisitions, it's likely that things are looking up. With high definition (HD) providing new impetus, the OB business is far from quiet and complacent at the moment.
The year started with Visions (Digital Outside Broadcasting), based in Middlesex, being sold by the Television Corporation to the US NEP facilities group for£16.8m. While TV Corp has sold off facilities to concentrate on its core production business, NEP is a dedicated OB, studios and engineering company. Vicki Betihavas, director of sales and marketing at Visions, comments that the acquisition has given Visions a global reach and NEP a European presence.
Through 2002 and 2003 the midrange OB market witnessed changes with CBF acquired by Televideo and CT Outside Broadcast absorbed by CTV Outside Broadcasts. Now attention has switched to the high-end. In February High Wycombe-based Telegenic, which holds four Sky sports contracts underwent a change of ownership, with incoming chairman Terry James and managing director Pete Bates buying out outgoing managing director Dave Barber and chairman Mike Spencer. Unit manager Eamonn Curtin observes that selling to a group such as NEP was a possibility but Bates and Spencer wanted to "keep the ethic of Telegenic" and retain its "close-knit team".
Arena Television of Surrey remains independent, which managing director Richard Yeowart sees as facilitating the building of what is claimed to be the biggest HD truck in Europe. "Being an independent company means decisions can be taken quickly," Yeowart says. Unit 7 is due on the road by September.
By contrast, 021 OBs, based in Birmingham and busy with Football Firstfor Sky, touring cars for ITV, Live 8 from Murrayfield and Top Gear, remains within ITV.
Managing director Ed Everest, who will leave 021 in the autumn for Charter Broadcast, acknowledges that a company-wide review continues but views 021 as a "very good stand-alone business". On the possibility of being sold off, he adds: "If we're part of Granada, fine. If it wants to sell, that's fine too. There are benefits and drawbacks to both situations."
All of which leads to the big ownership question: what will happen to BBC OBs? The sale of BBC Resources has been put back until 2007 at the earliest but the prospect is already causing concern and debate. From its base in Acton, west London, BBC OBs operates 17 scanners, three VT trucks, a dedicated sound mobile and a number of support and links vehicles.
It's not so much the trucks that concern commercial operators but the BBC contracts. "How would it square selling off a publicly funded company into the commercial sector with the contracts intact?" asks Mick Bass, managing director of Nottingham-based Scanners OBs. "When it happens there should be open tendering for BBC contracts that are held."
Another issue is the age of the fleet. "The buyer of BBC OBs would want a guarantee of work; otherwise it's just a lot of old trucks," comments Barry Johnstone, managing director of north London company CTV OBs. He adds that if the buyer is outside the OB sector, the market will be little different to how it is now. "It would be another BBC," he says. "If it goes to an existing operator, that would make a big difference. I'm sure NEP has an eye on it."
Another possibility is breaking up the fleet and selling it off piecemeal. Colin Vinton, managing director of Neon Broadcast Services in Greenford, Middlesex, observes: "People would want to buy the contracts, unless they just want to get some of the trucks off the market and keep the good stuff." Ian Dyckhoff, general manager of audio specialist Sanctuary Mobiles, now based at Denham, Buckinghamshire, considers the possibility of BBC Resources' sound trucks being sold separately. "That would be potentially a big opportunity for us," he says.
Kent-based Bow Tie Television, which covers darts and snooker for Sky, provided HD facilities for Live 8 in Hyde Park and was at the Wireless and Download festivals. Its sales director, Duncan Smith, says the realistic view is that BBC OBs will be sold with contracts. Richard Yeowart of Arena TV does not see the age of the BBC trucks as an issue. "Arena was formed by buying LWT's OB operation and people said that was just a load of old trucks," he says. "It will probably be split up but whoever buys BBC OBs will get a kick up the ladder."
Phil Aspden, head of commercial at BBC OBs says the postponement of the sale is disappointing but dismisses the charges of unfairness if the operation is sold off with contracts. "All the contracts we have now and the ones we will win in the future were fought for on a commercial basis," he counters. "We don't win everything and we don't complain that that's unfair."
As to the age of the fleet Aspden says: "I don't think our trucks are any older than those of other fleets. Commercial companies have access to venture capital funding and so can update regularly. Look at the Visions sale - it's attractive to buy OBs, invest capital and improve a company's market position." On the issue of the order book Aspden acknow-ledges that without contracts no OB company would be attractive.
It's been a year of big and somewhat unpredictable events. Last-minute broadcasts have included the pope's funeral, the royal wedding, the general election and Live 8. Even fixed diary events such as Glastonbury provided an extra challenge this year as crews battled to rescue music from the rain. As a consequence CTV's Johnstone argues that far from seeing an oversupply of trucks, companies such as CTV are having on occasion to hire in other vehicles to cover some commitments. This trend is repeated at the other companies, with Visions and Telegenic in particular working together on a number of projects.
One-third of CTV's core business is sport, with regular contracts for Sky, plus reality work on The Farm, The Gamesand Fame Academy. Scanners also has Sky contracts but is more oriented towards music and currently has a regular contract for the Trisha Goddardshow for Five. "The market isn't better or worse than in the past," comments Mick Bass. "There hasn't been another Commonwealth Games but we were fortunate with the Women's Euro."
In Wales Barcud Derwen picked up a Question Timeand has various cultural events, soap operas and S4C programmes. Studio work has also picked up this year for the company, while OBs remain consistent.
At the smaller end, London company Picture Canning's truck has been working on football programme pilots, as well as AnimalRoadshowfor ITV daytime. Dales Broadcast in Coventry works on racing for both Channel 4 and the BBC and has seen a number of election and other political contracts this year. Managing director Julian Boden regards the big issue as rates and money, with clients "wanting more for less", but views the market in general as "quite buoyant".
The coming of HD appears to be adding a further boost. New HD trucks are being put on the road by Arena, Neon - whose HD truck made its debut on election night (albeit in SD) - the BBC with the 12-camera HD2, while Scanners has a truck with a HD compatible router and 021 has converted its small Unit 4, with Unit 2 to be upgraded this year. Arena's big truck will be fully HD, including monitoring and, although it has been designed to fulfil Sky's requirements for both vision and audio, Richard Yeowart says he wants other clients to use it as well.
Of the companies that migrated to HD early, Bow Tie put a second, smaller HD truck on the road last August, Picture Canning's vehicle is switchable while Telegenic continues with its one HD truck and Visions now has two. Clients do not necessarily expect to pay more for HD cameras but the real cost to the operators is in the lenses and, for which they can charge higher rates.
The real cost of OBs is the crew, which companies say cannot be skimped on. Permanent staffing levels vary, with Neon employing only three full-time personnel and so relying on freelancers, while Telegenic and Arena have around 30 staffers each. Both still bring in freelance camera operators, as well as other specialists, as does the BBC, as well as having a full-time staff of 300. Yeowart comments that Arena pays enough to keep such a large number of permanent staff, despite the temptation of increasing rates offered for Sky jobs (there's currently a£100 disparity between Sky and BBC freelance rates).
In the main OB operators are optimistic. HD is certainly bringing changes but the new trucks might not change the market completely, as, ultimately, SD vehicles will be phased out, so bringing equilibrium again. While that much can be surmised it has to be remembered that life on the road is rarely predictable.
It was something as technologically advanced as hairdryers - and an astute engineering manager - which saved the BBC's Glastonbury coverage this year.
It seemed like a straightforward job for BBC OBs - working with BBC music entertainment, radio resources and Glastonbury Festivals.
It was to provide the domestic live coverage of the festival for BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4, plus international coverage on Japanese NHK and one US channel as well as two interactive streams.
Eight OB trucks and 36 cameras were deployed to cover the action across four stages at the festival - two of these stages being captured for the first time in high definition.
And then the heavens opened. As lightning cut power to the site on Friday and flood waters rose, the BBC2 tent had to be abandoned entirely. Engineering manager Peter Taylor recalls: "We also had to reposition the hospitality tent - basically rerigging the whole thing in half a day but still providing all the facilities that were expected."
Safety advisors were on hand to advise on dealing with the submerged mains cabling and lighting sets and Taylor's BBC OBs team completed the rebuild in half a day, rerouting a BBC generator in transit and sending out for hairdryers to dry the kit that would keep the show on air.
Even though the crew had no mains power until Saturday, they battled on and despite missing one act on the main stage everything else was covered as scheduled.
Taylor saves special praise for the riggers who dug out a flooded gully over two days to rescue connections for the hoist camera - just in time to capture those wide shots of Coldplay performing on Saturday night.
Reality TV and web streaming open up the market for OB
It's easy to associate most outside broadcasts with sport and music events, but there are a number of emerging genres that are keeping OB outfits busy.
Reality shows have provided a new source of business for some OB companies. It can also be a useful sideline for companies with larger fleets, although the trend has moved towards most reality shows being run through flyaway systems.
Peter Knowles, managing director of systems integrator Total Audio Solutions based in Bromsgrove, runs his own sound truck, known as the Tardis. The company has also built a second audio mobile with its associate Sound Design and is installing the sound equipment in Arena's new HD vehicle, Unit 7. The Tardis was built originally for Weakest Linkand now works on Scrapheap Challenge. TAS additionally supplies flight-packed audio equipment for various reality shows, including The Scariest Places in the Worldfor US broadcaster Fox.
The leader in reality facilities is Roll to Record, currently in the throes of Big Brother 6and The House of Tiny Tearaways(BBC3), plus Richard and Judy for Cactus. All the company's trucks are on BB and in the off months service awards ceremonies.
CTV has sent out trucks for Fame Academybut also has a healthy flyaway business, with a mixture of the two on The Games; a flyaway for the reality elements and a truck for the events. A similar combination was seen at Euro 2004, with trucks working with production cabins equipped by Gearhouse Broadcast, which also worked on Celebrity Love Islandthrough its Australian office. In general, managing director Eamonn Dowdall sees trucks best suited to one or two day events and flyaways to longer term productions.
Politics is another growth area for truck companies, moving into territory previously associated with SNG vans. Both Neon and Bow Tie provided facilities during the general election, while the latter company is finding additional work in providing feeds for video screens during live events. A company for which AV work is proving a mainstay is Bay Television in Wales. It provides systems for many screen events, as well as two to four camera shoots and corporate presentations.
New work doesn't always mean new ways of working, just different outlets. Streaming music concerts and other events to the internet and mobile phones is in its early stages but could prove lucrative. Picture Canning worked on a recent Natasha Bedingfield showcase for 3 Mobile. Managing director Phil Wade says that if such an event starts with broadcast quality then at least there's something to throw away during the compression process.
A small but noticeable trend among some mobile recording studios is burning CDs as a concert progresses, allowing fans to buy a recording of the live mix immediately after the show.
The producers' choice
Although production companies use OB facilities for many different types of programmes and have very specific requirements and expectations, the basic equipment remains the same.
Initial Television, part of Endemol UK, produces music, fashion and entertainment events that generally require multiple cameras. Among these are Fame Academy, The Match, Fashion Rocksin Monaco and various awards ceremonies, plus one-offs such as the Edinburgh launch of the new Harry Potter book.
Lisa Chapman, head of event television at Initial, comments that on large-scale productions producers should work with OB companies they trust. "Anything can happen at a live awards show so you need to know that the crew is on the case. Getting on with them is also important."
Chapman says that OB teams need to be flexible, particularly if the set is not quite ready or if a performer is not on time for rehearsal. Technology also needs to be adapted to specific needs, such as using EVS recorders for red carpet sequences and turning them around fast.
Broadcasters are now transmitting live a wide range of programmes that, at one time, would have been pre-recorded or made in a studio. Among the more unusual examples is Stonehenge - Live, produced by Darlow Smithson Productions for Five. The aim was to recreate the ancient mystic circle as the Druids - or the like - would have seen it and speculate on its true purpose.
Freelance producer Rupert Parker was once an OB cameraman and uses OBs on such programmes as Scrapheap Challengeand Hercules(for BBC3) and was brought in to oversee Stonehenge. Parker selected BBC OBs and says the starting point is "an engineering manager that can be trusted", while the company should have experience in areas other than just music and sport to match the needs of a production such as Stonehenge.
Cynics may think there are so many sports OBs that all trucks are geared up for this genre alone and that all events have the same needs. Phil Bigwood, executive producer of football coverage at the BBC, says the requirements are "very specialised". Bigwood continues to use BBC OBs and in particular Unit 10 for live matches. "The presentation and VT areas are important," he says, "and if you can do everything - presentation, graphics, VT - in one truck, that makes life a lot easier."
TWI covers a mind-boggling array of sports and next year will be at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, set to be the biggest sports OB ever, and the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. As well as that TWI produces the European tour golf for Sky and has a long-term relationship with CTV OBs. "It's developed a set of vehicles that are designed for the job," says TWI's head of engineering and operations, David Shield. "There is a separate presentation area for Sky and the VT truck is used to cut in other holes on video or disk as others are being played. It's a bespoke deal, with the trucks liveried in the tour colours, so the flexibility of a supplier to adapt or build vehicles is crucial."
Uefa women's Euro 2005
The tournament was played at football stadia around the north-west of England and all matches were broadcast live on Eurosport. The BBC took highlights and transmitted England's matches and the final live.
Scanners OBs provided host broadcast facilities, with two trucks on back-to-back games on the same day. As Eurosport is based in Paris it fell to Scanners managing director Mick Bass to book the directors and production team as well as the technical crew.
Eurosport's production plan called for 4:3 PAL pictures and stereo audio, with nine cameras. These included two cameras on the 18-yard line and a Super Slo-mo. Five to 10 commentary positions were available, with studio or open-air presentation areas.
As some venues, such as the City of Manchester Stadium and Ewood Park, are Premiership stadia, full studio and broadcast facilities were already available. At the other venues studios and presentation areas had to be built.
Full commentary packages were provided, with the ravings of the commentators carried down either ISDN circuits or the participating broadcasters' own link via SNG trucks.
Facilities were provided for flash interviews after the matches, while the trucks were equipped with "loads of EVS" for replays and "beauty shots". Bass comments that Uefa was looking for a consistent product both in terms of technical quality and the performance of the freelance crews. Through Scanners, Eurosport provided power and a secure TV compound for broadcasters to bring in their own facilities on match day to tailor their presentation. The international signals were received at the BT Tower and then beamed from Eutelsat W3, with three audio feeds made available by BT for overseas broadcasters.