It was always on the cards that SIS LIVE, incumbent of BBC Sport contracts since 2008, would shed some work as a result of the broadcaster's recent tender renewal, but few anticipated it would be sidelined entirely, least of all SIS LIVE itself which seemed not to have contemplated an outcome in which it was not even placed on the list of companies awarded framework agreements to pitch for future BBC work.
Since BBC Sport contributed the majority of business for SIS' OB division, and with all other major contracts sewn up, the firm had little choice, it seems, but to fold the unit from March, affecting 240 jobs.
In a letter to customers explaining the decision commercial director Phil Aspden (pictured), said, “More and more, it has become a commodity marketplace, driven by ‘spot’ contracts, where price is the dominant factor.”
While rival suppliers recognise this situation, they say it is hardly new and that SIS failed to adapt. “Cost has always been a factor,” says Brian Clark, commercial and technical projects director at NEP Visions. “Clients are keen to get the best value for money and will pay a premium for expertise, scale and reputation.”
“All OB companies at some point have wanted to buy the odd contract by pricing at close to break even,” suggests Arena chief, Richard Yeowart. “This also applies to SIS though, as they also tried to build market share by being aggressive at times. The most polite way of dumping your 'OB date' is to tell them they were beaten on price, but perhaps things are not always that clear-cut.”
Less competition, less quality?
The sudden withdrawal of SIS LIVE leaves the market with even fewer main players, although those left standing deny that this will result in less competition, or lesser quality.
“It will provide greater job security for the remaining operators as the market balances and it will allow one or two of the smaller companies to find their feet and grow organically,” says Yeowart. “The market always finds its own balance and this will happen quite quickly with the OB sector.
“From a numbers point of view, having an added slice of turnover will allow the remaining players to offer better economies of scale across their business,” he adds. “The negative aspect is that 200+ staff will be made redundant, but many will resurface as freelancers or as staff elsewhere.”
Arena was so concentrated on signing with Sunset and Vine to cover all BT Sport's football played in England and Wales until 2017, that it didn't in fact have capacity to land any BBC strands.
That bonanza is being meted out to NEP Visions which takes on athletics, tennis and Wimbledon coverage; CTV, which will support the Boat Race, football and the London Marathon; Presteigne Charter which will work on the broadcaster’s Formula 1 output and Telegenic, which will supply the BBC’s rugby league and rugby union coverage.
The tenders for The Open Golf Championship, the FA Cup, BBC Sports Personality of the Year and the BBC's Winter Olympics presentation have yet to be awarded.
BT Sport's dramatic late scoop of Champions League soccer from ITV and Sky from 2015 will see new OB supply bids courted in the new year, with existing Champions League soccer suppliers Visions and Arena seemingly in pole position.
Trucks for sale
SIS LIVE's fleet of 14 HD OB trucks will be put up for sale. Yeowart says Arena's preference is to build trucks “that meet our methodology rather than try and adapt another solution to our needs”, while Visions has earmarked a multi-million pound investment in six flypacks (added to its existing four) specifically to cater for BBC work.
“We took a strategic view and concluded that we have a substantial fleet of trucks and that flypacks will give us greater flexibilty,” says Clark. It's Wimbledon 2013 support for ESPN and the BBC, for example, was a mix of flypack and truck, although it is driving and ferrying trucks to aid NBC's Sochi coverage this Winter.
The difference between truck and flypack, according to Clark? “Wheels,” he says. “You can outfit a flypack for 35 cameras or events requiring three to four cameras. That takes longer to build than a truck [on site] and you need a physical location to put a pack into but there are occasions where you can't park a truck and of course you can't put one on a plane.”
Yeowart reveals Arena is planning “an unprecedented growth” of four OB trucks in the next 12-18 months to meet demand which will see it send facilities to the Commonwealth Games, Brazil 2014 and the Rugby World Cup. Since OB11 entered service in December 2012 the company has focussed on investments in Sony cameras, Canon lenses, bespoke radio cameras and EVS XTs.
Telegenic, which landed BT Sport's Aviva Premiership Rugby matchday coverage and continues to produce Sky Premiership soccer in 3D, already has a 4K-ready truck outfitted with Sony F55 cameras which will be one of, perhaps the only, truck recording 4K for FIFA at the World Cup come June.
CTV, part of the giant Euromedia group, has also pledged to launch a 4K-ready vehicle timed for around May after discussions with BSkyB about its roadmap for Ultra-HD which would seem to be a question of when not whether.
All OB suppliers are testing 4K signals and circuits, with most trucks requiring relatively minimal investment in routing and switchers to be labelled 4K-ready. The camera channels though are arguably the biggest missing piece.
“The issue we are considering carefully is what camera technology will future proof all of our content,” says Clark. “If we take the plunge on one type of camera, will it suffice for 1080p 60p as well as Ultra-HD? I know other companies have got 4K trucks, but where I struggle is having an integrated 4K system in which you can be confident of the future.”
At heart is nailing the frame rate, which by most accounts would require at least 120fps for 4K sports acquisition to be viable.
What is divisible by 50 and 60? poses Clark. “You get to 300, While I don't think that is achievable, a sensible decision has to be made as to what the frame rate is going to be in the camera that works for HD today and higher resolutions. We expect to be involved in multiple 4K test events next year and, just as we developed HD, I'm sure people will come up with standards around 4K.”
By Adrian Pennington