In an otherwise uneventful year, Belgian companies have made inroads into the outside broadcast market in Europe. Kevin Hilton asks where they are headed.
Looking back on the highlights of a year in facilities can be disheartening if the initial conclusion is that nothing much happened. Compared with 2002, this year has probably been something of a disappointment for the outside broadcast sector but that is only because there was little, if anything, that matched the scale of the Golden Jubilee and the Commonwealth Games that occurred last year.In fact, probably the biggest thing to happen to UK OB companies came from Belgium. The country's Alfacam and Outside Broadcast both continued to steal high definition (HD) music event work and the former even signed what can be called an unofficial preferred suppliers agreement with the BBC to provide their truck on a dry-hire basis.It's enough to fill with dread anyone who remembers It's a Knockout and the concept of someone announcing: "Here come the Belgians!" before a giant competitor entered the arena.The biggest sporting event of 2003 was held on the other side of the world but while it would be easy to let that drop goal overshadow everything else, sport in the UK continues to provide the backbone of the OB market.The majority of companies have at least one long-term sports contract, this being the way the broadcasters prefer to do business. The biggest of them, Sky's Premiership gig, is up for renewal next year.These type of deals ensure work and cash flow but they can leave companies open to the vagaries of the TV market in rocky economic times. Carlton 021 was "dealt a blow" last year by the collapse of ITV Digital and this had an affect on 2003 says managing director Ed Everest, but after a "modest downsizing" and regrouping, the company has made inroads into the entertainment field instead, winning work on an upcoming Talkback series for Channel 4, Zero to Hero, the National Television Awards, Question Time and filmed theatre shows for BBC4.Being identified with a particular type of programming can be beneficial but it can also be a form of typecasting. "Having a long-term contract is fantastic for security," says Everest, "but you are stymied for other kinds of work." It is healthy for companies to regularly reassess their activities but the ITV Digital situation caused a reshuffle in a market already experiencing an oversupply of facilities.There is the view that the demise of Monkey and his DTT friends was a blow not just for Carlton 021, who had the contract to cover Nationwide League football, but for the OB market in general. At TV Corporation, owner of Visions (Digital Outside Broadcasting), chief executive Jeff Foulser says that Carlton 021 was "thrown into the market with lots of extra capacity". This, he observes, has lowered prices and means some consolidation is necessary, "otherwise people will go out of business".In a quiet year there have still been some special events and one-offs to break up the ongoing sport and entertainment contracts. Telegenic worked on the Amsterdam show featured on the Rolling Stones' Four Flicks DVD as well as the state visit of President Bush and the anniversary celebrations for Pope John Paul II in the Vatican - both for ABC. On the sports side the company won two Sky contracts: the Uefa Champions' League away fixtures (Visions handles the home matches) and the Heineken Cup rugby.Reassuringly, despite an overcapacity in the market, Telegenic unit manager Eamonn Curtin says there is enough work for all the companies.One subsection of the OB market that has been shrinking since the late 1980s is mobile music recording, leaving two main companies in this field, Sound Moves and Sanctuary Mobiles. With record companies cutting back and a trend for TV and DVD concerts to be recorded on the sound desks in scanners, the audio-only companies are repositioning themselves, with Sanctuary planning to take one of its trucks off the road and use its console within a permanent post-production facility.Such a move in the scanners market would go some way to achieving the consolidation that Jeff Foulser deems necessary but it is obvious that none of the companies sees the sense in bringing another truck on the road. This is reflected in this year's approach to HD, with Visions, Bow Tie Television and Telegenic having built brand new vehicles but, for the future, CTV having the option of converting an existing unit rather than putting a new standard definition truck on the road.Live events are being recorded in HD across Europe but the proportion is still low. This year Visions has worked on the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Slane Castle and coverage of Glyndebourne for the BBC. The Stones gig in Amsterdam was recorded in HD by Telegenic but when Mick and his boys played Twickenham, a truck from Alfacam was brought in, albeit with Telegenic staff acting as project managers. A similar arrangement was used for Robbie Williams at Knebworth, with Outside Broadcast, providing the truck and CTV overseeing it. Carlton 021 has also acted as production manager on HD projects by other OB companies. It seems the HD revolution is not yet upon us, even with the imminent launch of the Euro 1080 channel.As the clamour for reality television continues, some OB companies - CTV and Roll to Record among them - have found a lucrative role in providing technical facilities. But it can't be long before this sub-genre evicts itself from the TV landscape.As an alternative form of business there was also the 2003 trend for drama to be shot in four-wall studios with an OB truck as the gallery.This looks set to keep the sector on the road, or to be more precise in the car park, for a while longer.But next year looks more positive as, notably, the European football championships in Portugal and the Olympics in Greece are soon to be upon us. Rich pickings for all - but also another chance for the Belgians to bounce their way into contention.FACILITIES HEADLINES 2003January- SVC and Soho 601 merge to become One Post- MPC spends£1m on a new digital film lab- Picardy Media Group goes into receivershipFebruary- BBC Outside Broadcasts agrees deal with Belgian company Alfacam- Ortmans Young International closes- Reseller Red Lorry Yellow Lorry quits televisionMarchM2 enters negotiations to buy a majority share holding in post-production group Big Finish. It comes to nothing- Equipment hire company VFG buys Asylum Studios from the Sanctuary Group for a six figure sumApril- Barcud Derwen buys Picardy Media Group and becomes the UK's largest regional facility- The head of Ascent Media Group's UK creative services division Mark Hewitt quits both company and industryMay- Pepper management enters negotiations to buy the company from the Big Finish Group- Molinare appoints former Sony Media sales manager Mark Foligno as its new managing directorJuneThe Hospital reveals plans to open Europe's first high-definition studio- The Farm Group reveals plans to open a£3m facility in Shepherd's Bush directly opposite the BBCJuly- BBC Resources posts a year-on-year profit for the first time in its history- Oasis Television joint managing director Andrew Coppin admits he will sell the facilityAugust- Bristol-based Pink House is bought by Films@59- A city report advises that several post facilities will need to close in order for the rest of the sector to surviveSeptember- Waterside Television goes into liquidation with the loss of 17 jobs- The Farm reveals that BBC F&L relationship manager Andrew McKerlie will join Uncle as general managerOctober- Client manager David Brady buys Soho Editors for£0.5m- A management team buys 422 Manchester- The BBC opens its new broadcast centreNovember- Reseller and hire company McMillan forced to call in the administrators- Bill Cullen steps down as chairman of M2. He maintains a stake in the companyDecember- McMillan is forced to close- Post-production yearly turnover is up to nearly£1.4bn, according to a report from the UK Film Council.