The BBC’s flagship winter sports programme Ski Sunday reaches a significant milestone this weekend with the launch of its 40th series.
The show’s probably best known for both its iconic theme tune and David Vine’s tenure as host from 1978-1996.
John Nicholson joined Ski Sunday in 2009, taking over as series producer four years ago. Since joining the show, it’s undergone some major changes in terms of how it’s made.
“When I came on board the programme was made at Television Centre where we were all based,” Nicholson tells TVBEurope. “At the time, there was a spin-off series that the Ski Sunday production team looked after called High Altitude presented by Ed Leigh and Graham Bell and involved them making slightly more thrilling, adrenaline-fuelled features that would run to a certain length. It was not competition based at all, it was more challenges between the two of them.
“Because that took up quite a lot of their time, all the Ski Sunday links were shot in advance of the series starting, all in one go from a chalet in Val d’isere, and the live races would be inserted in. Graham would go to the race and do the analysis of each run. So it was a very different process for the programme being built. It was all edited back at Television Centre. The producer would fly back with tapes late on a Saturday and then have those tapes ingested and they would be turned around and broadcast the following day.
“Now we edit almost all of it out on site and we spend a bit more time in the resorts, the idea being we’re more a part of the event rather than showing it from what was essentially a studio,” continues Nicholson. “So there are more people working on the programme out there but less working on it back in Salford. The other big difference I would say, back in the day when we were mostly making the programme from Television Centre, the race itself would be satellite fed back into the building so we’d edit the race there.
“Now, we record the race locally using the Host Broadcaster’s OB facility and edit the race there. That saves us a lot of money because we’re not paying for satellite costs, we just plug a hard drive in, record it on site and edit it. The commentary is added later, so it’s post dubbed, our commentator commentates to our edit. We try and do as much as we can on site so it means that when races get cancelled, which is happening more and more these days, we’re there and can reflect whatever is going on.”
For an hour-long weekly show, Ski Sunday has quite a small production team. “On the road, we have two editors, one assistant producer and me, the presenters and one cameraman,” explains Nicholson. “It’s quite a small team actually on site. On the day of transmission, there’s usually a producer back in Salford as we send the programme back almost fully complete from wherever we are in Europe. So there’s one producer and one editor that finishes it off.”
“We don’t use IP,” admits Nicholson. “We still have a satellite link back to base. We’d love to be able to send it back via the internet but because we’re in the mountains the internet speed isn’t as fast as it would be in the city. Also, because we’re sending almost all of the programme, it is quite a lot – we can be feeding 40 minutes worth of content back to Salford. Obviously that as a file would be quite a lot. We normally send everything back to Salford at 9am on the Sunday morning and it’s played out from Salford later that day.”
“On the road we edit off laptops using Avid,” he continues. “Until fairly recently we were still using FCP7, we only changed to Avid a couple of years ago. We travel out to the locations with a big hard drive full of archive and that’s a library that we’ve built up over years and years and because for a long time we were editing on FCP, all of that archive is ProRes. Now we’ve moved to Avid that has an implication as to how we work from a technical point of view because we use an AMA link to archive and then consolidate edits rather than just pulling it in.”
Obviously working on Ski Sunday can mean working in some pretty cold temperatures. How does that affect production? “One of the problems of filming where we do is battery life,” says Nicholson. “It’s much lower, much smaller because of the cold temperatures. You have to be aware that if you’re filming outside and then you move indoors there can be condensation in the lens, that sort of thing.
“What I would say about filming in those environments is that it slows everything down, it slows the operators down because it’s cold and you can’t feel your fingers and if it’s really cold you struggle to think,” he says. “Our presenters don’t use autocue so they have to remember their lines, the programme’s entirely scripted, but because we do it in small chunks we only have one camera. So we try to replicate a multi camera look just by shooting different angles, and that’s not always very easy if it’s cold, just getting your words out isn’t easy.”
Finally, how does Nicholson feel about shepherding the programme through its 40th anniversary? With such an iconic history, does it feel weighted down by the show’s legacy? “I’ve genuinely got goosebumps as you say that,” he laughs. “It’s not something that really occurred to me until fairly recently. As a producer for BBC Sport I work on other programmes, I work at Wimbledon, I worked on Match of the Day, so I’ve worked on lots of institutions of sports broadcasting. But to actually be in charge of it, regardless of the history and heritage of the programme, just to be in charge of something that a million people watch every week, it is genuinely a real privilege.”