Tuesday, April 06, 2010

World Match Racing Tour - Innovating and pushing the boundaries of TV production

How should the sport of sailing be broadcast on TV or the internet? Who better to talk to than Sam Usher, MD at Redhanded TV, that has been innovating and pushing the the boundaries of TV production since 2005 at the Monsoon Cup and now of the entire World Match Racing Tour.

What was wrong and how it changed since the 2005 Monsoon Cup
The Monsoon Cup has been one of Patrick Lim’s creations who brought his immense knowledge of sports such as Formula 1 and sailing. Then forging a relationship with Peter Gilmour being one of the world's best match racers and a sailor for all his life, always believed that television never matched up to the quality of the sailing. They felt that what was produced up to then failed to portray the sport of sailing as exciting. As a result, from the very onset, the idea was to make the most professional, exciting, exhilarating and interesting TV production and whatever it was necessary to do to accomplish he would make it happen.

For 5 years now, Usher and his team have been producing innovative coverage of the Monsoon Cup, streaming live since 2005 and starting this year they will be in charge of TV production for the entire ISAF World Match Racing Championship and it is great to be working with the entire WMRT team and their events.

Five years of ground breaking TV coverage. Video copyright World Match Racing Tour

Telling the story
According to Usher, in 2010 they will be looking at sailing as a "TV Reality Series". If you take Big Brother for example where you have 20 cameras that film 20 people 24 hours a day in order to produce a half-hour show, it's very much about taking the correct decision which stories to tell. To that end, Mark Chisnel will join the production group as Editorial Director with the role of finding new ways of telling stories, to look more at the people than it has been done up to now. The focus this year will be to tell the stories of the people, of the competitors in a more compelling way so that the actual racing has more effect and more impact. They will try to give more highlights to specific parts of the racing than just filming racing while talking over it. That's one key part of their strategy, to develop the intrigue just like in Formula 1 between Button and Hamilton with Schumacher coming back or between Alonso and Massa and the battle in Ferrari. The buildup about these characters made the actual race dull in comparison.

At the end of the day, match racing is a one-on-one battle, a gladiatorial-type of encounter between two sailors, two teams and the philosophy is to tell the story of the characters beyond narrating the simple story of the race.

The Statistician
This fundamental philosophy doesn't mean at all, according to Usher, that he won't be talking any more about the wind shifts, the right or left side of the course or any other technical aspects of the sport of sailing. On the contrary, together with the Tour they are working on implementing the role of the statistician, a knowledgeable commentator that will build and maintain a detailed database with, ideally, all the key data for each sailor and each race. As a result, at the end of this year's championship it will be possible to have a wealth of information during each race available at the fingertips of the commentators. For example, how many times Ian Williams or Torvar Mirsky won a race entering from the port or starboard race, how much time Ben Ainslie spent in dialup or in what wind ranges Adam Minoprio had more victories.

It is an ambitious development and with the adequate technology it would be possible to let the numbers tell part of the story as well, creating drama through knowledge.

Can you be any closer to the action? Video copyright World Match Racing Tour

Virtual Eye - Twitter tack by tack
As Usher stated, the aim of the Tour is to have from the Korea Match Cup (June 8 - 13) onwards the Virtual Eye technology available in every event of the championship. In addition, Mark Chisnell will be doing a live blog in each race through Twitter, tack by tack and on every event, telling Minoprio went left, Pacé went right, etc. The aim is to also have the readers and viewers interact through Twitter and Chisnell will provide the TV producers with feedback.

The logic behind this idea is related to the fact that at least the last 2 final days of every event will be streamed live on the internet. As a result, viewers of the live streaming can ask questions about the racing and the tactical decisions taken by each of the two opponents. These questions could even be asked in real-time by Andy Green onboard one of the yachts. Imagine watching a race and you want to know why, for example, Francesco Bruni opted for the right side of the course when the left has been clearly favored throughout the day. The idea is to make the broadcast even more immediate, closer to the viewer by giving him the chance to participate. The question might not be answered on the spot by the sailors as they will be extremely concentrated on sailing but right after they cross the finish line they can go through the audience's questions.

Even when vying to attract an audience as wide as possible, Usher is adamant that one should never "dumb down" the sport of sailing. Sailing by nature is a technical sport and TV production should be about providing the high knowledge and explaining all the technicalities in order to make it as much accessible as possible. TV production should be inclusive, not exclusive and should cater to the novice, the casual sailor but also the expert match racer.

Can you be any closer to the action? Video copyright World Match Racing Tour

The technical side
The technical means deployed in the 2009 Monsoon Cup were certainly staggering. First there were 6 cameramen from the in-house producer, called Electronic News Gathering (ENG) cameramen, whose task is to do the detailed technical sailing filming on the water. Andy Green, one of the world's top sailing commentators, was onboard with his helmet camera and microphone, not only providing spectators with the helmsman's view but also expert commentary.

In addition, there were 4 mini-cameras mounted on the two boats that took part be on the finals. On each boat there was one camera mounted on the mast, just above the spinnaker halyard, and a second one on the bow looking forward that provided an interesting point of view when the two yachts were coming together. The outside broadcaster also provided ten cameras that shot all the action onshore.

Yet, in terms of delivering a clever TV production, audio off the boat is one of the most important things, making the whole experience feel alive, feel real. Audiences are able to hear the noise coming from the boats, the sound from the winches, the yelling and screaming of the crews, in general the sound of sailing. For that reason, each of the boats was equipped with two microphones, one in the hutch and another one in the stern, mounted on the back transom.

No matter how good the images and sounds coming from the boats might be, they would mean nothing without the adequate control room and this is where the WMRT's partnership policy comes into play. In the Monsoon Cup, WMRT has a partnership with Malaysian broadcaster Astro that supplies and runs the Master Control Room, saving the WMRT money but getting in exchange the broadcast rights. Therefore the WMRT can channel more money into the production.

For 2010, the technical advances will be incremental, more an evolution than a revolution. All sort of small, ultra light, high definition cameras are being tested in order to get even closer to the action. In addition, a pole cam will be used, capable of even providing underwater shots. Finally, a new, smaller and portable live mixing desk will be used, able to handle up to 8 live inputs and this will make it even easier to use in the smaller events where there might not yet exist a full control room.

As Usher says, a camera is always a camera, there is nothing overly new there, but it's all about how you use it, where you point it, and that's what the World Match Racing Tour does with great success.



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