For sports lovers and OB firms alike, the gauge of a good summer is not the amount of sunshine but rather the number of sports hours one can cram into the day. Using this measure, summer 2008 will be a blinder. In addition to the regular Wimbledon, Premier League and Test Match coverage, there is Euro 2008, the Ryder Cup and the Olympics.
Although providing OB coverage of the Olympics is logistically and financially difficult, someone has to do it, and SIS OB will be providing the BBC's feed to the UK. And, even though it is unable to reveal details of its Olympics coverage for contractual reasons, it is safe to assume that a vast number of its trucks and manpower will be out of the UK for the Games' duration. The company has sub-let other contracts, including Wimbledon Centre and Court 1, to Arena in order to be able to focus its resources on the Olympics.
This year is a promising one for OBs not just because there is a lot of sport to cover but also because there are a plethora of platforms wanting to cover it. Arena managing director Richard Yeowart explains: “We now have Sky and Virgin and there will be Freesat soon, and all have or will want their own sports feeds.” He adds: “There is also a trend towards putting on more games. When Sky had the contract to cover the Blue Square Premier it was covering 30 games; now Setanta has it, it put on 79, requiring 50 extra OBs.” In addition, the format of the Uefa Cup is expected to change next season to become a league rather than a knock-out competition, again meaning more matches and more OB coverage.
However, the industry's talking point remains the sale of BBC OB to SIS. The deal went through on 1 April 2008 when, SIS took ownership of all 19 trucks and 300 full-time staff.
Sale of BBC OB
SIS's business rationale was twofold as chief operating officer Mark Kingston explains. “SIS subsidiary SIS Link has a large and growing uplink capacity and if it can provide OB services as well as uplink to clients it will have a broader and potentially more cost-effective offering.” In addition, the teams worked together before the buyout: “BBC OB has an ongoing contract to provide Formula 1 to ITV Sport and SIS Link has provided the uplink for two years. We knew the teams worked effectively together,” says Kingston.
Second, Ladbrokes owns 23% of SIS Link and uses a third-party OB supplier to provide its betting shops with footage of 1,200 UK horseraces a year, as well as greyhound and international races. Once the third-party contract ends, SIS Link can use BBC OB services to provide racecourse footage.
One potential downside of SIS's acquisition of BBC OBs is that the BBC OB trucks require considerable upgrade. Only three of the 15-truck fleet are HD (competitors CTV and Arqiva are working with fleets that are 70% and 57% HD respectively). But as Kingston explains: “We knew the business required a multimillion-pound investment and our ongoing contracts from the BBC underpin this.”
These contracts include the BBC's coverage of the Open Golf, Royal Ascot, Glastonbury and Wimbledon. The Open, for which SIS OB is providing the world feed, is perhaps the biggest contract, with a 70-camera rig and hundreds of miles of cable providing 40 hours of -footage.
The length of each of these contracts has caused considerable industry speculation but Kingston would say only that many last as long or longer than five years. As these contracts expire and new ones come up, it is not inconceivable that the links between SIS OB and the BBC will loosen as the BBC becomes used to working with other suppliers. According to one industry insider: “SIS OB does not have long to prove to the BBC that it can offer a parity of service to companies in the free market - it will be a steep learning curve.”
But just as the BBC need not always go to SIS for its OB coverage, the provider's relationship with the BBC is not exclusive either. Its first major job following the sale was to cover the Grand National for Sunset + Vine - a job it won via an independent tender.
One of SIS OB's USPs is its specialist camera division, which includes the Ski-Boot-Cam, the HD Plunge-Cam and the Stump-Cam. The division is currently creating an HD version of Stump-Cam for Sky Sports' coverage of Test Match cricket, which is due for delivery imminently.
Arena and the BBC
After SIS OB, Arena arguably has the strongest relationship with the BBC. Its confidence with the broadcaster comes not just because it has secured the Wimbledon sub-contract. Its relationship with SIS has given it OB work for the BBC's Six Nations and the company has also independently provided HD OB for BBC coverage of Crufts and Glastonbury.
Group managing director Richard Yeowart also highlights the BBC's relationship with Arena Aviation, which provides helicopter OB to the broadcaster for motorsports coverage and news events. According to Yeowart, this contract helps ensure Arena fulfils the procurement requirements necessary for the company to qualify as a preferred BBC supplier.
Business within the wider market also looks good for independently owned Arena, which will have doubled its turn-over from£10m to£20m year on year if “things go to plan”, says Yeowart. This is largely on the back of a three-year contract secured with Setanta last August to provide 130 Premiership games a year for the broadcaster.
Setanta is also looking to appoint an OB company to provide coverage of the forthcoming FA Cup, which it is providing with ITV. The duo (ITV and Setanta) won it from the BBC and Sky this year and the contract begins next season. Yeowart says: “The list has been narrowed to us and 021. We know that they have been happy with us, and they may want to extend that relationship, but, alternatively, they may not want to put all their eggs in one basket.”
CTV looking to Europe
Another interesting development within the OB market was the acquisition of CTV in September last year by the Euro Media Group (EMG). The company also owns French technical services company VCF and Belgium United Broadcast Facilities as well as other European OB operators.
The impact of EMG's acquisition of CTV is beginning to be felt this year as the company realises plans to grow its relationship with its European counterparts. The acquisition has given the business “critical mass”, according to CTV commercial director Adam Berger.
The company has ploughed£12m into upgrading its fleet to HD over the past two years. Of the seven OB trucks, five are HD and 65% of its programming is shot in HD. CTV's USP is golf and it has the contract to provide OB coverage of the entire European golf tournament for Sky Sports, and also provides all Sky cricket coverage. In addition, the company has strong links with American customers through its relationship with its former owner, US-based NMT, which sold the company to United Broadcasters in 2005. EMG will cover golf for ABC Sport, plus the first NFL match for CBS Sports this autumn.
With 65% of its work coming from ad hoc rather than contract jobs, Berger has found this year tough. “The credit crunch has made a high investment industry like ours more difficult and we have found that the number of one-off programmes being commissioned has dropped.”
Berger attributes this in part to a reduction in reality shows requiring OB facilities - the only shows of this sort left on air are Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity... Despite CTV having contracts to cover the Isle of Wight and V festivals, to be broadcast on Channel 4, Berger sees fewer music-based shows being commissioned. “Channel 4 appears to be holding back, with a number of music and one-off events being postponed until autumn,” he says.
The company is currently investing£4m in two small HD trucks - one will launch this week, the other before the end of the year - and CTV is hoping to supplement its awards work with these smaller HD units. “Space is tight in London and awards events require OB trucks that can park in more limited spaces,” says Berger.
Like CTV, NEP Visions also has US ties as it is owned by Pittsburgh-based NEP Broadcasting. This summer it will provide sole coverage of the athletics and gymnastics from Beijing for NBC Olympics. The job is a “logistical nightmare”, according to managing director Martin Anderson, with£5m of equipment being sent to Beijing. The monitor stack alone will number 125 screens.
Of its 17 trucks, six are HD and the company will launch one more in the next 18 months. Anderson says: “The migration to HD slowed in 2007 following Sky's push but we expect it to increase again with HD programming on Freesat.”
The company will fulfil a number of ongoing contracts such as the French Open Tennis as well as showjumping for Sky Sports this summer. However, just as CTV's specialism is golf, NEP's is football and one of the company's biggest jobs recently was to act as host broadcaster and provider of Sky's coverage of the Uefa Champions League final in Moscow this year. In total, it used eight trucks, two for match coverage, two for presentation, two for slo-mo replay and two tape trucks. The job was awarded as a result of the company's relationship with the director of the world feed, Tony Mills, also the director of the European Premier League for Sky Sports.
Regarding the tapping of new markets, Anderson says: “We are likely to be expanding our geographical presence” and adds that the international nature of the market is a factor that he believes will begin to affect the UK. “Talented European cameramen and riggers are significantly cheaper than homegrown talent, even with the airfare added.”
It was no secret that Arqiva was one of the bidders for BBC OB, but, despite losing out to SIS, the company plans to continue to grow its business organically. Although ongoing sports contracts make up around 60% of its turnover, it has secured a number of ad-hoc contracts this year. It has supplemented its contracts to record BBC1's Question Time and the much lauded newly HD Antiques Roadshow with the BBC's religious programme The Big Questions and Sunday Life presented by Colin Jackson. It also worked on Song for Wales for S4C.
Like many of the big OB companies in the UK, Arqiva looked at the contract to host the Olympics for the IOC but Arqiva OB managing director Mick Bass did not feel it was a suitable option. “The logistics were impossible, the trucks would be out of action for the travelling time, and the money was bad,” he says. “It is probably more feasible for European providers who are geographically closer.”
021 recently completed its third HD truck, Unit 6, which it used alongside HD Unit 3 to shoot the British Touring Car Championship season at Brands Hatch. As a result, three of its six trucks are now HD. Like NEP, 021 sent trucks to Moscow to cover the Champions League final. It also shot the HD final of the Uefa Cup in Manchester for ITV which shared the feed with Sky.
Although 021, like many of its competitors, has had a good year, it is always looking for new areas of growth. One area in which business development director Andrew Jones sees opportunity is that of studio-based shows where the studios are not yet entirely HD equipped. For example, 021 is filming Are You Smarter Than a 10 Year Old? in HD at Elstree, Pinewood's Gladiators is being captured in HD by SIS, and Don't Forget the Lyrics was shot at the London Studios by Arena.
Jones adds: “There are limitations to studios and, where productions want to change the look of studio-based -programmes and go to a larger dry hire facility, OBs will pick up the work.”