Sky F1 HD on the starting grid
By: Andy Stout
Thursday, March 8, 2012 - 12:58 pm

With a week to go till the start of this year’s Formula One season, Sky Sports is launching its eagerly anticipated one Sky F1 HD – an entire channel with web, interactive and second-screen support dedicated to the sport. It’s a massive undertaking and promises to raise the bar on motorsports coverage to an impressive degree. Andy Stout talks to Darren Long, Director of Operations at Sky Sports about the challenges involved.

When it was announced last year that the BBC was relinquishing its exclusive rights to Formula One coverage in the UK as part of a swingeing cost-cutting exercise and that Sky was picking some of the races up, there were two diametrically opposed reactions. First, was the usual angst about a sport moving from free-to-air to pay-per-view, but second was a certain amount of intrigue about what the broadcaster could bring to the table.

Even Sky’s detractors admire the way it has revamped the coverage of pretty much every sport it’s ever touched over the years. And, with an entire channel dedicated to the sport that will show every practice and qualifying session, as well as interviews, archive action and weekly magazine shows, the broadcaster’s F1 coverage looks like it’s only going to enhance that reputation for innovation.

“Operationally it’s been a massive learning curve, but from the start of this we’ve been absolutely full tilt at it,” says Darren Long, Director of Operations at Sky Sports. “We’ve carefully looked at how other people have covered F1, and decided there were some really good ideas that we would like to use ourselves.”

One of those ideas was to use equipment pods to transport the impressive amount of add-on kit the new channel requires around the world’s racing venues. Built by Gearhouse Broadcast, the four interconnecting pods weigh 17 tonnes in total and feature a server pod, an audio pod, an MCR pod and a stowage pod.

“We looked at using a mixture of pods and portakabins, using trucks when in Europe, but we decided we wanted to keep everything consistent so we went for the pod and portakabin mix. That way we can always keep everything as it should be expected to be,” says Long.

The key kit list for the pods includes Omneon MediaGrid storage, along with Avid, EVS XT3 servers, a Lawo desk, and a Grass Valley Kayenne mixer. Crucially, Sky has also built exactly the same system back at its Sky Studios base.

“That way when content comes from onsite to here we’ve got identical systems, identical workflow and identical equipment for the editors to use,” says Long.

Sky hopes that viewers will see many differences in its coverage – certainly, talking to people at Formula One Management it sounds like the broadcaster is planning to use a lot more of the bells and whistles that FOM outputs than others have previously – but one thing its certain in that it will all sound very different.

“One of the things to us which was key as well was audio,” says Long. “Only a couple of foreign broadcasters have done 5.1 before and we wanted to do it really well. We decided you can’t mix 5.1 in a portakabin…actually you can’t mix audio in a portakabin full stop – you can’t hear a damn thing. So we decided to build an audio pod where the sound was isolated that would enable you to mix 5.1, though you’ll always get some sound penetration.”

Indeed, sound penetration is one of the main points of Formula One, with nothing quite matching the lurid buzz of a F1 engine screaming up through the revs. That will also be heard in the new studio that Sky is talking along to the races, which was built purposely by a company that specialises in F1 garage design.

“They worked with a plan to our design that would allow us to build studios that would always be consistent,” explains Long. “I say studios because, because of the cost of air freight, we’ve built three studios that allow us to leapfrog from one venue to another using ships. We’ve built a large studio about 6m in the air which has the ability to do analysis with a Hego touchscreen, interviews, and also gives us a proper vista outside. Underneath we’ve got all our technical facilities, and all that’s being shipped from one site to another.”

Again, the onsite studios are mirrored by one back at base, mainly for producing magazine shows during non-race weekends. “In that we’ve got Hego touchscreen analysis again and some very clever tricks that we’ll be rolling out including virtual cars and track plans that people will be able to do analysis on.”

Studio cameras will be Sony 1500s, while P2 units will be used around the circuit. “We have negotiated that during practice we can cut off the world feed and insert our own cameras, so we’ll be able to go into the pits and discuss things,” says Long. “We’re a P2 ENG company so it makes sense to use them here too. We’re using Link Research wireless backs operating in the 7GHz range, working in conjunction with BSI as a supplier.

All in all eight feeds will be coming back from each race, with many available to viewers via the various second screen options. “We’ve teamed up with the EBU, working in conjunction with PCCW and AT&T, and we’ll be doing fibre from every venue, including China,” says Long. “We’ll be delivering our services with a satellite back-up, but mainly it’s fibre using STM4 and a Nimbra encoder system. That’ll be up 24 hours a day from Tuesday.”

Long says the main challenge in setting the new channel up was in the sheer global scale of the production. “How do I move the studios around the world and get them to look the same? How do I get the pods round the world? How do I move a sizeable staff and feed them, clothe them, look after them and make sure they’re okay? It’s something FOM do week in and week out, but we’ve had to learn it all.

“And we’ll be taking as much from FOM as they give us,” he continues. “It’s not just about the race, anymore: it’s about the teams, it’s about the environment too. So, we want to show everything: the story of the race from the time the guy cleans the van to the time the drivers get on the grid. We want to tell that story in a way that makes it more exciting for the viewer at home.”

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