Six of the UK’s leading OB companies tell Adrian Pennington how sport, live concerts and HD upgrades kept them busy in 2007.

NEP Visions
Visions orchestrated the host broadcast for all matches from Cardiff and Edinburgh during the Rugby World Cup.

Although O21 provided ITV presentation for all matches, Visions managing director Martin Anderson believes the exclusive relationship between the broadcaster and the OB provider it once owned is over. “The exclusive supply agreement which ITV had with O21 since its sale has come to an end and it is now breaking up work and handing it to a number of players.”

It has already wrestled Football First (pictured, above), Sky Sports’ English Premier League (EPL) highlights package, from O21. It’s an important piece of business for the firm since it makes up some of the ground lost when Setanta picked up a slice of Premier League football rights from BSkyB.

Visions’ contract, shared with Telegenic, for coverage of the EPL for Sky Sports remains its largest bread-winner. It built two new trucks to cover the additional 139 matches for Football First which are transmitted live for overseas consumption. “We view Football First as a good stepping stone to develop crew skills before they step up to Sky’s live EPL coverage,” says Anderson.

Away from sport it erected fly-away units for Hell’s Kitchen at 3 Mills Studios and aided BBC OB at Glastonbury. Next year sees the firm deploy two HD fly-away units to Beijing for NBC’s coverage of athletics and gymnastics.

Arqiva Outside Broadcast
The 2007 Carling Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal (pictured) was the UK’s first domestic final to get the hi-def treatment and was Arqiva’s biggest job of the year.

Thirty-two HD cameras from the firm’s two new HD trucks were trained on the action at the Millennium Stadium for Sky Sports as part of a three-year deal with the broadcaster which also sees it provide HD coverage for Football League matches and Speedway motorbike racing, which is not as yet in HD.

Since the launch of the business in April 2006, Arqiva has made great strides into light entertainment and current affairs programming, winning contracts to produce The Antiques Roadshow for the BBC and Question Time, plus its Sunday morning follow-up, The Big Questions, for Mentorn.

“Sport will always back up what any OB supplier does but we weren’t just handed the non-sport business; we went out and won them on merit,” says managing director Mick Bass. “These shows require a different and specific touch. They are one-offs with new locations each week. There’s also a different culture to these shows [compared with sport] and a different set of relationships to manage.”

Arqiva also landed the Bollywood Awards when it arrived in Sheffield in June, an HD production that claims to have been watched by 100 million worldwide.

Also in June, Arqiva launched a third Sony-equipped HD truck, bringing its fleet to seven, four of which are HD, three of those boasting 5.1 audio capability.

“We felt that there was a lack of smaller footprint high-definition OB trucks available to producers and took the bold step of commissioning one,” says Bass. Since launch it’s been busy on Question Time, Champions League add-ons or the launch of The Who DVD. “It’s powerfully equipped but doesn’t have the parking problems of the larger double expanding side trucks.”

This was always going to be a huge year for Arena as it embarked on its first major long-running sports contract - for Irish broadcaster Setanta - but managing director Richard Yeowart emphasises the company’s role in high-profile, one-off events.

It provided a truck for the BBC’s presentation of the Concert for Diana (CTV was the main OB provider) and for Live Earth (pictured, left) it engineered the live feed taken from 37 HD cameras for all UK and world broadcasters. “Those events contributed to a substantial 42% year-on-year growth,” says Yeowart.

Unit 9, the company’s latest £1m-plus Sony-outfitted scanner, drove from the factory gates in September, with further trucks planned for 2008. “It’s a question of checking the order book and working out how busy we’re going to be,” he says.

The Setanta contract - which comprises 46 Premier League football games per year plus 79 annual Conference matches - has established Arena as a serious mid-sized player. It faces tight turnaround times to rig vans for each match but “amazingly it has gone off without a hitch”, he says. “It thrust us into the limelight and, if we get it right, it will add weight to our pitches for new work.” Although currently an SD production, the Irish broadcaster will consider upgrading to HD, perhaps in time for the 2008/9 season.

Like his peers, Yeowart is unsure of the impact a freshly independent BBC OB will have but he predicts that not all current BBC OB contracts will go to the new owner. “BBC OB will need substantial investment in equipment and staff,” he contends. “I wonder what impact the BBC’s decentralisation will have on an OB unit which is based in London.

“The new owner is likely to inherit a number of juicy contracts but ultimately work will go to tender in the traditional manner and that’s when companies like ourselves will be watching.”

Already part of mammoth Dutch facility group UBF, CTV gained an even larger parent when UBF merged with French technical facilities and services provider Euro Media Télévision in September. The combined Euro Media Group (EMG) forms one of Europe’s largest facility players, with 45 OB trucks, 93 post units and 78 studios with an estimated turn-over of Eu300m (£215m).

“It doesn’t change what we do dramatically on a day to day basis but it does give us a lot of extra capacity and artillery,” says CTV managing director Barry Johnstone, who also joins the EMG board.

New trucks - of which there are six under construction across the group including two at CTV - will be interchangeable in design and technology to facilitate pan-European projects.

“The aim is to provide a fleet capable of supporting European broadcasters but staffed with local crew. This will save broadcasters the expense of transporting trucks all round Europe,” Johnstone says.

A mix of Sony and Thomson cameras and switchers will be bought to outfit the trucks so that EMG is not tied to a particular manufacturer.

Even on its own, CTV (which retains its own brand) is the largest UK OB operator with an annual turnover of £22m (Visions generates around £20m) with contracts for Sky Sports cricket (pictured, above) and European Tour Golf.

“Only 50% of CTV revenue is contract work,” says Johnstone. “The rest is walk- in business.” Key one-off events this year included the Princes Trust concert and host broadcast work for US network Fox for HD coverage of the recent NFL American football match at Wembley.

The 80-strong fleet of BBC OB is now ensconced at Langley, close to Heathrow and the M4 corridor.

“After 42 years in west London we’ve collected quite a bit of clutter,” says BBC OB director Mark Tugwell, who anticipates even more of a spring clean when ownership changes hands at the end of the financial year.

Prospective buyers for all or part of BBC Resources, which includes post-production and studios, have been narrowed to a shortlist with preferred bidders expected to be announced in a matter of weeks.

“It’s absolutely the best thing for BBC OB, its staff and its customers,” insists Tugwell. “We have struggled under the constraints of public ownership, which have prevented us from bidding for certain pieces of work.

“I am completely confident that the BBC will make the right decision, happy with the transparency of the process and that our new owner will be 100% committed to taking us forward. To be honest I’m really looking forward to it and ending the ambiguity that surrounds us.

“Once we know who the preferred bidders are, all our staff can think about what working for them might mean and know what type of organisation they are.”

As a sweetener to the new owners, the fleet will be swelled by two HD 5.1 units, scheduled to be ready in time for the Beijing Olympics. Each will be equipped with Sony HD cameras and switchers, with the coach build awarded to an (undisclosed) company which the BBC has never before used in a move Tugwell admits is risky but promises to deliver something “outstanding and special”.

“You have to work with customers to transfer to HD at the right time,” says Tugwell. “Invest too quickly and you pay a premium price. Invest too late and you risk missing out on a slice of the market.”

This year BBC OB has carried out work including Premier League All Stars, a soccer show for Sky One. It has also taken its Unit 10 truck (pictured) to events including the FA Cup and the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

O21 Television
O21 is benefiting from a £10m investment programme under the aegis of UK facility group Gravity Media. In January it unveiled a £4m 20-camera HD truck for coverage of Dancing on Ice, (pictured) an event it will again cover in HD for ITV in 2008, launched a second hi-def scanner in April and has another 12-camera HD unit on track for the new year.

These are primarily to fulfil contracts for ITV Sport, with which it recently renewed deals to cover Uefa Champions League (soon to be transmitted in HD), the Uefa Cup and British Touring Cars.

“Gravity is investing heavily in the company to ensure that we’re at the forefront of outside broadcast suppliers,” says managing director Ewen Hamilton, who joined the company in November from Arqiva OB, where he was operations director.

The year’s highlight was providing location and studio presentation for the Rugby World Cup. Next year’s promises to be Euro 2008. The firm has secured one of Uefa’s four prestigious contracts to host-broadcast the tournament in Switzerland/Austria.

Nonetheless, there are a number of ITV contracts up for tender, including ITV’s newly acquired live FA Cup and England home internationals, which are being eagerly eyed by rivals.

“We’re not an exclusive ITV provider,” Hamilton stresses. “This year we’ve done [BBC shows] Top Gear and the Royal Variety Performance.”

Case Study: Producing the Boat Race
Directors are increasingly confident of deploying wireless or radio frequency (RF) cameras for more than occasional shots. The extensive use of RF cameras for coverage of the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race by O21 for ITV Sport has completely changed the presentation of the event, which previously relied on long tracking shots from cabled units to cover the 7km course. With 37 cameras and four directors to film the race, it is also the biggest regular OB event on the calendar. The cameras include four handheld radio cams, two giro-stabilised devices, two radio cams on the umpire’s boat, two systems on the university boats plus two helicopter rigs and five fixed camera links. The event is unique because the whole system relies on ground receivers using cellular diversity fed back by a fibre contribution network. The 2006 coverage won the RTS’ live OB of the year while O21’s 2008 production is likely to be HD for the first time, filmed almost entirely with HD RF units.