Julien Bertin, head of Infront Productions, France, reveals how broadcasters can adapt to the new normal and take advantage of the opportunities available in sports
It seemed over the early summer that everyone in the production industry’s favourite pastime was speculating how we would adapt and return following the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of us participated in, or watched, online round tables debating the issue, but now we are back in venues and galleries it seems that life goes on – many of the concerns and challenges we feared have been overcome and we are actually seeing plenty of new opportunities in the new normal.
In terms of pure coverage, there has not been a revolution, even though new solutions have arisen. The action on the field hasn’t changed. The impact has been on cutaway shots of the fans and in establishing the emotions and vibrance around the sport, including the missing audio atmosphere. Without the fans’ reaction, the story has to be told purely through the coach/manager and the players’ reactions.
Some of the debate suggested bringing fans at home into the coverage but this has not happened yet to a great level and I think it will continue to be challenging. I remain to be convinced that this would intercut easily with the live images. Equally, while on an advertising front virtual overlay can provide opportunities for sponsor visibility, virtual overlay of fans would look unrealistic and out of synch with the real action. Thus, the low-tech idea of cardboard fan cutouts has been the predominant approach and is less distracting to the viewer.
To mitigate the change in circumstances, the coverage can be adapted to minimise the visual impact of empty stands, or lack of fans curbside on a road race. A good example was the recent World Triathlon event in Hamburg. The lack of spectators, as well as the absence of Hamburg downtown shots, meant that the focus was fully on the race. In order to maintain a level of variety and heighten the storytelling, we supplemented shots of the race with more graphics and replays. These kept the viewer abreast of constant gaps, identifying groups and the performances of athletes.
Due to the change of the event’s location, from downtown to the densely-wooded Hamburg Stadtpark area, using a traditional coverage set-up with a helicopter providing an aerial perspective was not possible. The solution implemented, using a live drone to replace the helicopter, allowed us to film the start, the transition and the finish line – thus enriching the race coverage with a different kind of aerial shots. With enough creative thought and innovation the current setbacks to traditional broadcast are proving to be a catalyst to open up interesting new techniques. It is just a case of looking for the opportunities.
On an audio level, I have seen this as an advantage to emphasise the sounds of the sport. The noise from the pitch, tennis court, ice hockey rink has been dominant – the impacts, the screams, the advice from the coaches. When artificial stadium noise has not been piped in, this has enhanced the production value and given the viewer a feeling of being part of the event again. It has added a tactical edge to the viewing experience, now that they can hear the managers and players communicating.
It has also given a new dimension to the commentator’s role. Again in Hamburg, we relied on the commentator to compensate for the lack of Hamburg landmarks and fan shots to bring the audience closer to the action. They elaborated the focus on the athlete’s routine in lockdown, or how they trained, and shared the positive message of sports’ return.
Actual operations behind the camera have had to adapt fast, but teams have proven to be adaptable. Camera operators and staff have been following the social distancing measures put in place, such as wearing the mandatory mask at all times and using plexiglass within the OB van to protect all the positions.
We speculated during lockdown that interviews between those at the stadium and journalists would be managed via Zoom, Skype, etc, but with a boom microphone held at distance, and some adaptations about the location, post-match interviews continue. Flash interviews, for instance, are now being organised in open rooms, rather than in enclosed spaces such as a mixed zone, to ensure the mandatory distancing.
Furthermore, while the freedom of circulation of broadcasters has been reduced around the stadium, options have been found to limit the impact in terms of coverage; for instance, instead of a camera operator following teams in the tunnel, remotely operated or fixed mini-cameras are being installed to give the viewer an embedded look into the backstage of the match. This flexibility and outside-the-box thinking has allowed production teams to uphold the variety of the live coverage.
In terms of non-live content, it has been interesting to see the creativity on show and so many post-production ideas. The reactivation and use of archive material, talent creating improvised live shows for social media platforms and content pieces outside the whistle-to-whistle coverage has kept fans engaged. Some of it has been really inventive and it’s interesting to think this content wouldn’t have been generated and shared without the current situation.
The new normal of social distancing and ‘behind closed doors’ requirements has obviously impacted the coverage of sport, but broadcast is a robust and resilient industry. Ultimately, we can’t let these Covid-19 restrictions hamper our output. Our work is to make sure we turn this situation into a positive and find solutions to allow fans to enjoy the return of sports to their screens.
Julien Bertin is head of Infront Productions, France