How the World RX is setting the benchmark with its coverage

In a guest article ahead of the season finale in South Africa on November 9th, Nigel Chiu (@NigelCJourno) looks at the World Rallycross Championship and why in his view it is setting the benchmark where motor sport broadcasting is concerned...

The 2019 FIA World Rallycross Championship has been the most exciting, entertaining, and unpredictable season you could possibly ask for.

Whilst the on-track action has been outstanding, the television coverage has matched the quality of the racing.

Coverage of any sport can make or even break how you feel about that sport. It might be the most thrilling Formula One season ever but a poor broadcast can be detrimental.

Conversely, you could be witnessing a boring, predictable season but the coverage can salvage things somewhat and keep you interested.

Easy to watch in the UK
Something that makes World RX unique in some respects is that it airs live and free-to-air on Freeview, a rare breed for motor sport these days.

The series airs live on FreeSports, with coverage also available via BT Sport. In addition, fans can watch coverage online via both Facebook and YouTube.

With a strong presence across social media coupled with the championship airing on one of Britain’s biggest free-to-air sports channel, already, this is a massive plus before even discussing the actual coverage itself.

Since 2018, every qualifying session has aired across World RX’s Facebook and YouTube channels, with coverage extending to their support categories as well, including RX2 and European RX.

The semi-final and final of each race weekend airs live on the two mentioned social media platforms as well as BT Sport and FreeSports.

How does the World RX format work?
Saturday
Q1 (4 to 5 cars race)
Q2 (4 to 5 cars race)

Sunday
Q3 (4 to 5 cars race)
Q4 (4 to 5 cars race)
Semi-Finals (top 12 drivers from qualifying, 2 races with 6 cars each)
Final (top 3 from each semi, first to finish wins)

If you do not catch the qualifying sessions, then needn’t worry as the first of the two-hour television show on Sunday’s covers the best of the qualifying action to get you up to speed with who has made it to the final stages of the event.

In addition, rather than ignoring the support categories, the two-hour show covers the support categories immediately after the main WRX race so viewers are more likely to continue watching.

‘Mega’ Commentary
Something that helps World Rallycross is the brilliant commentary team of Andrew Coley and Dan Rooke which, to use one of Coley’s popular words, is mega!

Both are very knowledgeable, forming a great commentary duo. The two have formed part of World RX’s coverage at every event this season, a departure from previous years where the likes of Andrew Jordan, Guy Wilk and Tim Harvey were alongside Coley.

The chemistry was not always apparent between Coley and his co-commentator in previous seasons. Having one or two co-commentators across the season works better than having five or six different commentators in my view which is what used to happen.

2019 World RX - Latvia final.png

Coley commentates like he is a top, former driver (despite having only raced in minor rally events) and is now the ‘voice of rallycross’ with his passionate and unique commentary which fans love.

Usually, the co-commentator talks about most of the technical aspects of the sport, but Coley not only acts as lead commentator, he also gives the viewer a fascinating insight into the world of rallycross.

He clearly does his research before events and has an excellent relationship with the drivers, conducting the press conferences as well as interviewing the drivers for features.

How he does all this as well as commentating on up to ten hours of live coverage, plus having to voice over the highlights and narrate over the TV show is staggering.

Somehow, Coley keeps a high level of intensity throughout the weekend, making very little mistakes (correcting himself when he does) and still has a voice by the end of it despite the fierce action!

Rooke is the perfect companion to Coley with a calm approach which interweaves nicely into Coley’s style.

The 2017 RX2 runner-up has great observations skills, noticing and understanding the actions of the car, and is very quick at spotting if someone has a problem (for example if a driver is suffering a puncture).

Something that many modern day commentators forget is to tell the viewers what is happening outside of the pictures that fans can see, except Rooke’s simple but highly effective comments (such as whether a driver has the gap to take their joker lap and come out in clean air) are very helpful to the viewer.

Coley himself does a good job with this but Rooke adds that something extra, noticing anything that Coley may miss to form the perfect commentary.

In a way, it is very similar to the BBC’s Formula 1 commentary pairing from 2011 of Martin Brundle and David Coulthard which personally I believe was the best commentary pairing F1 has had in the UK. So much knowledge, passion and enthusiasm which suits both the hardcore fans and the casual audience.

Presenting, analysing, and reacting to the situation
Laura Winter and Neil Cole present the World RX qualifying show, gathering the opinions of drivers just minutes before they line-up onto the grid. The drivers are always up for a chat, with refreshing honesty on offer from all.

Post-race, the team interviews the winner of each qualifying heat in a ‘WRC-style’ manner with the sound of the 600bhp engine harping away in the background with the driver still full of adrenaline.

If there has been a major incident between two drivers, Cole or Winter will always get an interview with them as soon as possible which is exactly what the fans want to see.

The production team rips the script up, placing emphasis on the incident, ensuring that the team covers all angles – both in terms of analysis and interviewing perspective.

Clearly, the producers, directors and everyone involved behind the scenes are excellent at reacting to the situation as it comes rather than going off a script. This mindset and methodology is the right way to go about motorsport coverage (as ITV showed back in 2005 with the Indy fiasco).

During the actual on-track action, the choice of camera angles and what to show is generally spot on.

We see in-car onboards of the drivers pumping themselves up moments before the race and once the lights go out, the director chooses to always focus on the cars, only showing the fans or the team personnel in the spotters’ tower after the race or in between races.

With so much going on in rallycross, occasionally the director fails to spot things, but key moments such as two cars getting close at the joker lap merge, or cars going nose to tail are always shown with onboard cameras used at the right time to enhance the intensity of the battle.

In my view, the World RX is arguably the most unpredictable motor sport out there, and if they can do the television side well, delivering an exceptional broadcast, then other motor sport categories can too.

Have you watched the World Rallycross this year? What do you think of their broadcast offering? Have your say in the comments below.

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Behind the scenes in the BSB OB truck: the key roles and responsibilities

The 2017 British Superbike season is heading into its final stages, with the remaining three rounds forming part of the ‘Showdown’.

Silverstone was the last stop on the championship prior to the Showdown, and it was there where this writer was invited into the British Superbikes outside broadcast (OB) truck. Richard Coventry, who has been the television director for the MCE British Superbikes series for the past twelve years, is our guide to the Televideo truck. In the second and final piece, we talk about the various roles involved in live motor sport broadcasting.

As referenced in the first piece, Coventry sits on the front desk, with the monitor wall in front of him. But Coventry’s role as television director is significantly more encompassing than that. Coventry in his role speaks to all the key players around him within the British Superbikes production crew, from the producers through to the commentators, commonly known as ‘talkback’ where information travels back and forth between the various parties.

“I sit in the middle of talkback communication between myself, the Eurosport producer, the camera operators, the VT operators, the sound crew, the engineers, the presenter, the commentators, but also race control, so I can speak to the race director if I need to,” Coventry explains.

The end-to-end process between an incident happening on-track, through to the television viewer hearing the story is fascinating. Because of the communication lines that Coventry has, it means that he can gather information on a riders’ condition from the medical centre, and then relay the facts to the commentators. “I talk to everybody effectively and disseminate the information coming back.”

Sitting next to Coventry is a race producer and a vision mixer. Communication across the front desk is vital. The primary role of the race producer is to keep an eye on emerging battles, deciding with Coventry whether to switch to the battle. Following the decision, the vision mixer cuts the pictures to cover said action. The race producer sits to the left of Coventry, with multiple timing screens in front of him on the monitor wall.

“Myself and the race producer will decide whether the battle for the lead has spread out, we’ll look down for a battle for fifth or a battle for 19th. We must make a judgement call on what the best thing to follow is, it’s not always the same outcome. We’ll prioritise what battle we think is more important for the race, for the championship and we will take a view on that.”

British Superbikes - running order
The Eurosport running order for the British Superbikes qualifying programme from Silverstone on Saturday 9th September 2017.

Behind the trio on the front desk is the Eurosport programme producer and the production assistant (PA). Unlike in Formula 1 or MotoGP, the British Superbikes OB truck controls both the race feed and the Eurosport pictures, hence why there is both a race producer and programme producer. The programme producer writes the running order for the Eurosport show, whilst the production assistant at a high-level ensures the show does not fall off the air. “We do have to think on our feet, the running order has some leeway,” explains Coventry, “but everything is timed down to a second.”

“The PA tells us whether we’re over, under or on-time based on the running order and the event, whether we need to adapt the running order to keep us on-time. If there is a red flag, we might have to consider moving breaks, and it is the PA’s duty to communicate that back to Eurosport. And, to work out, further down the running order later in the day, the things that we need to change to make sure that we’re on time.”

Like with Sky’s Formula 1 programming, many other countries also take Eurosport’s British Superbikes output, and it is the responsibility of the PA to communicate any changes to the other channels. “The PA communicates with the rest of the World Feed recipients, such as Setanta Africa, Sky New Zealand, the people who are taking it live elsewhere to let them know if there’s been any changes to the schedule of the event, so they may want to change what they’re doing as well,” Coventry tells me.

Alongside the key roles, there are other important pieces of the jigsaw. Coventry also referenced the on-air presentation team, the camera operators, an editor, two assistant producers, four replay operators, riggers, amongst many more people behind the scenes. “It does go off successfully, I suppose that’s a relative term! It’s like the proverbial duck on the pond isn’t it, the legs are going ten to the dozen underneath, but the ducks are smooth on the surface!”

“It’s pretty labour intensive, you’ve got to have an operator for most cameras, if we’re live we need a live gallery PA. We couldn’t reduce this beyond where we are without affecting the output. It’s a fairly slick and tight operation. There’s a lot to consider, but fortunately there’s enough of us to think of it all.”

Behind the scenes in the BSB OB truck: the monitor wall

The 2017 British Superbike season is heading into its final stages, with the remaining three rounds forming part of the ‘Showdown’.

Silverstone was the last stop on the championship prior to the Showdown, and it was there where this writer was invited into the British Superbikes outside broadcast (OB) truck. Richard Coventry, who has been the television director for the MCE British Superbikes series for the past twelve years, is our guide to the Televideo truck.

The main component of any OB truck is the wall of video monitors, which is where most of the focus lies. At a very high level, the monitor wall is where the director can see the variety of sources. For Coventry and his team, this can consist of around 13 track cameras and two pit lane cameras.

The size of the operation massively depends on the series, those of you who read my MotoGP piece with Dorna’s Managing Director Manel Arroyo will know that Dorna have around 150 cameras per race! Nevertheless, the principles behind the outside broadcast truck are similar.

“The monitor wall is a multi-viewer, so its eight monitors split with lots of sources. Every source that’s available to me in the vision mixer is on the monitor,” Coventry explains. There is a left bank (with two monitors), the four centre monitors seen above and a right bank (with two further monitors).

The centre bank of monitors is where Coventry’s attention is for much of the time. “I’ve got 13 track cameras directly in my eye line, underneath the main programme output (PGM). Next to that is the vision mixer preview (EDT PVW – PVW) so what is coming next,” Coventry says.

As you may expect, the track cameras are ordered by their position on the circuit. So, track camera one, controlled by Phil, is positioned at Copse (identified on the screenshot above as 1 Phil). Further round the track, Matt is controlling track camera six at Club opposite the Formula 1 pit lane, and so on and so forth.

A special case is track camera eight, identified above as 8 Dodgy. The reason for this is that the camera can double up and act as two different cameras. In this instance, the camera can see the bikes entering and exiting the arena section. This is common place at tracks where there are tight complexes, or the layout is small enough to allow multiple uses of one camera (the camera high up above the start-finish straight at Monte Carlo is another example of this).

The two graphic operators (GFX and GFX 2) sit up in Race Control with the time keepers. The left-hand and right-hand bank of monitors feature repeating sources.

“I’ve got four replay machines, which are called EVS W, X, Y and Z respectively. Each replay machine can record up to six sources,” Coventry explains. Both sides also contain the off-air output for the channels that British Superbikes are broadcasting on (O/A 1, O/A 2, and Quest), the two pit lane cameras (RF1 Chris and RF2 John) and the big screen output around the circuit.

Eurosport use the two pit lane cameras for their pre and post-session presentation, controlled also from the centralised OB truck. “Because of the unique way British Superbikes is run, as well as directing the race production, we also do Eurosport’s presentation. In MotoGP or F1, you would have a BT or Sky Sports truck and then an international World Feed truck, where the UK broadcaster would sit downstream. For the superbikes, unless there is a clash with World Superbikes, we do everything.”

The most interesting part of the side banks is a camera identified as ‘Q-Ball‘. “We control the Q-Ball camera from the truck. The camera this weekend is at Woodcote, coming into the start-finish straight, it’s very close to the track so we wouldn’t place a camera operator there, it gives us a fast speed shot,” Coventry notes. The benefit of doubling some elements up is so that nothing can be missed.

Lastly, specific to the left-hand side are the raw timing screens (P1P2 and P3), and the final satellite output (Line 1). Adrian Bourne, normally sitting to the left of Coventry, will use the timing screens to keep an eye on any emerging battles and on any fallers. One thing readers may notice that is not here is any source on-board cameras. The reason is cost related: the cost of live on-board cameras for motorcycling is significantly more than their four-wheel counterparts. Some On-board footage however is produced for the BSB YouTube channel by Drift Innovation.

British Superbikes - OB truck - buttons.jpg

Below the wall of video monitors is a series of buttons, known more formally as the vision mixer, responsible for slicing the final live product together. There are four repeating banks, each correlating to the sources in the screenshots above. On each bank, there are buttons for the 13 track cameras, the two pit lane cameras and four replay mixers. “It’s layers of vision mixer, cascading into the layer below, so we can make layered complicated effects if we wanted to,” Coventry explains to me.

Each layer also contains a variety of lime green buttons, generated before the live show. “All the green buttons here are macros, which are things written in advance, they’re complicated moves that you wouldn’t be able to build live so we build them in advance. For example the start lights animation is a macro, the team boxes, changing the name of the team boxes, these are stored in the mixer, as is the BSB bug and the timing graphics as well.”

The detail above covers the technical element, including the variety of outputs and graphics. But every television product has a human touch to it, and British Superbikes is no different. The technical side of television production is only one side of a complex story…

British Superbikes - OB truck - Monitor Wall Left 2.jpg

Olympic observations

Motor sport may be the main focus of this writer’s attention, but for two weeks every four years, an event comes around which dominates television viewing both here in the UK and abroad: the Olympic Games.

There are a few aspects that I wanted to touch on in this post which still has some relevance to motor sport and Formula 1.

Graphics simple, but effective
The Rio 2016 graphics set has not changed very much from those on display at both the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 games, meaning it has now been used for at least eight years. The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin used a modified version of the previous graphics set. What is interesting to me is the difference between Formula 1’s graphics set and the Olympic set. I dare say that the Olympic graphics set is stuck in the mid-2000s, but it has not changed in recent years.

F1’s graphics display multiple pieces of information on-screen at the same time, whereas the Olympics goes for a ‘less is more’ approach. I guess it is also a sense of familiarity for the latter given that the Olympics is firmly aimed at bringing in a casual audience. Both serve different purposes and that should be recognised. It would be interesting though seeing Olympic graphics stuck over the top of a F1 race. I suspect fans would find them too intrusive.

One similarity between the F1 and Olympic Games is the slow-motion shots. The first week has seen a lot of superb slow-motion shots from Joe Clarke’s victory in the canoe slalom to the diving events, there have been a number of slow-motion shots which no doubt will be repeated in the closing video packages next weekend. We also saw the bike cam in the cycling team pursuit, although the quality of the camera was not great thanks to the amount of rattling.

Is 455 BBC staff ‘too many’?
Back in April, the BBC confirmed that they would be sending 455 staff to the Olympics in Rio. Some of those 455 are freelancers, whilst the amount BBC have sent to Rio pales in comparison to the over 2,000 strong personnel that NBC have sent to Rio. Despite this, the BBC’s coverage (and number of 455) has attracted criticism from the likes of the Daily Star, Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

The comments that I have seen are your usual “too many presenters” or why are there so many production staff. Neither of which fully take into account the scale of the event. BBC One has been live on air from 13:00 to 04:00 every day, around 15 hours. BBC Four has been on air for the same length. Combine that with the running of the Red Button channels. On top of that, there is both online and BBC Radio 5 Live to consider.

Firstly, regarding the on-air staff, including presenters. Presenters do not present on-air and go home. Presenters also research, rehearse, record. Research so that they know what they’re talking about, rehearse so that the end product is as slick as possible and then record any VT’s that need to be done. Now consider doing that over 15 consecutive days. You cannot have one presenter, you need multiple presenters to cover each event and/or channel.

The same applies for commentators. Two commentators per event, 15 to 20 events and the numbers quickly add up. The numbers and facts that commentators have recited, chances are that a researcher has done that for them or (more likely), they have prepared and watched back historical tapes of that event. To bring it back to Formula 1: take David Croft or Ben Edwards. Throughout the Winter they will no doubt have re-watched the 2015 season to ensure that they are ready and prepared for every race for the following season.

Aside from on-air, there are those people off-air that keep the show running: resource managers so that everyone knows what they are doing, camera operators, sound supervisors, production co-ordinators, VT editors, interpreters and a whole host of other people who play a small but significant part in the coverage (I’ve picked a few out here, there are hundreds more). Without the talented men and women behind the camera, the show does not go on. Just because we don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Without VT editors, you can’t tell a story to the wider audience. Without interpreters, you don’t know what the winning athlete from a foreign country has said. Of course, this is not just Olympics related: you need this in any form of sport, including motor sport. At the end of the day, if you want to expand your remit, you have to expand your resources. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the BBC’s coverage from Rio, and I don’t think I would want it any other way. The days of presenting from the ‘London studio’ have long passed.

Olympics reaps rewards of free-to-air coverage
The beauty of the Olympics is its accessibility on television. Live, wall-to-wall television coverage on BBC One and BBC Four means that the Olympics can reach the largest number of viewers possible. Saturday’s coverage peaked with 9.4 million viewers on television, with 17.2 million global browsers accessing the BBC Sport website. These are brilliant figures all around, and shows how events benefit from being on free-to-air television.

Would the Olympics do anywhere near as well hidden behind a pay-wall? I doubt it. The Sydney Morning Herald website has a fantastic read looking at the extremely restrictive Olympic rights that extend far beyond television into the sponsorship world. I do not want to regurgitate the article, as there are a lot of fascinating points that I could note.

The key bit comes from Simon Morris, who is Fairfax Media’s (SMH’s owner) national video news editor. He says that the article “is not a complaint. We sign up to these rules as a part of a contract that allows us to send journalists. We could decide not to not do that and just rely instead on our statutory fair dealing rights under the Copyright Act, but we believe we have the best sports writers in the country and not sending them in return for being able to run more video would be a poor deal for you, our audience.”

The Olympics is a juggernaut if you’re part of the event. If you are not part of the event, then you are a complete outsider for that short time frame every four years.

What went wrong with A1 Grand Prix?

Whilst the eyes of the motor sport world this past week have been marking twenty years since the tragic San Marino Grand Prix weekend in which Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed, today marks another anniversary in the motor sport calendar.

Of course, in comparison to the above, this anniversary is a ‘dot’ in the grand scheme of things, however it is also worth covering in its own respect. Today marks five years since the A1 Grand Prix series ran its final hurdle. The date was Sunday 3rd May, as the 2008-09 season concluded with Adam Carroll winning both the sprint and feature races for Ireland.

But, where did it all go wrong for A1 Grand Prix? The series launched in late 2004 to much fanfare, billing itself as the ‘World Cup of Motor Sport’. Instead of it being team versus team, the series was distinctively country versus country. One car per country. Sky Sports’ were one of the major backers from a broadcasting perspective for the series, with an on-site studio for the very first race from Brands Hatch in September 2005. Georgie Thompson presented the show alongside Andy Priaulx. Ben Edwards and John Watson were in the commentary box for the World Feed with Lee McKenzie down in pit-lane.

Great Britain’s hopes rested on Robbie Kerr, who was Team GB’s representative for the majority of A1 Grand Prix’s life span. Other familiar names to watch out for included Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg, Brazil’s Nelson Piquet Jnr and France’s Nicolas Lapierre. A1 Grand Prix had this likeability factor that no other motor sport series had at that time, a ‘feel good’ factor.

Sky were optimistic for the series, so much so that the first race displaced Sky’s Premier League coverage off Sky Sports 1, a rare occasion. The first weekend got off to a flying start for Sky, the race action was largely good, and viewing figures averaged a quarter of a million viewers across several hours encompassing ‘as live’ coverage of the sprint race and the feature race that followed live. In comparison, their Formula 1 programmes typically average around 700,000 viewers. Even though the numbers were much lower than their football ratings, for a channel with not much live motor sport, it was a great number to build up on.

The problem with any series held in the Winter is that it means that most of the races must take place over in Asia, with only the start and end of the year in Europe. As it turned out, the first season calendar was well laid out. The first three races were in Europe, before heading out to Asia. The problem is though, that any series looking to build an audience is going to struggle to get any audience for races live at 06:00 in the morning in Europe (it probably did not help either that Sky stayed in London for these races instead of sending Thompson et al. to the races, this being the case until the very end). For A1 Grand Prix, there was not much way around it, and to be honest, I did not mind at all.

In my view, there was a gap in the market for a Winter motor sport series which A1 Grand Prix filled very well. That made it a ‘draw’ in my eyes, it gained extra exposure because of having races during Formula 1’s off season. Whether it capitalised on that though, is a separate point altogether. At the time, it felt like a great alternative to Formula 1 with its sprint and feature race format and four Qualifying segments.

It must be said that there were a few amateurish moments on display during its tenure, most notably the debacle that was the 180 degree turn in China during the 2006-07 season that many cars struggled to navigate. Sadly, this video fails to make it onto its YouTube channel, however, the fact that one exists shows how it was above the kerb where social media activity is concerned. Deep in the depths of Twitter is ‘A1GP Insider‘, an official A1 Grand Prix account who joined in March 2009. If you were in control of that very short-lived account, please, do come forward!

Whilst we can laugh about the struggles in China, the scheduling issues that plagued the series were not a laughing matter and were tipped over the edge significantly in their final season. Within about a period of a year or two, A1 Grand Prix had turned from a good series starting to make an impression, to a farce.

Their issues, however, ran deeper. It is perhaps no coincidence that their final season was also their first in a new deal with Ferrari, which should have lasted from the 2008-09 season to the 2013-14 season. A ten-race calendar turned into a seven-race calendar. I will not claim to have inside knowledge, but clearly the change of car and the Ferrari deal was negotiated badly and effectively killed the series. Whilst A1 Grand Prix should have been heading to Surfers’ Paradise in October 2009, their cars were still stuck in London.

It seems clear to me that A1 Grand Prix jumped the gun with its Ferrari deal, especially during the worldwide recession, the series should have waited until they were more financially stable before agreeing to these deals. I do miss A1 Grand Prix. Yes, we can remember the stupid moments, but also, the country versus country formula provided some extremely good racing, the Durban street track a notable favourite.

The next Winter series set to take the limelight is Formula E. Most of their timeslots are friendly to a European audience, but is unusually on a Saturday, so it will be interesting to see how that fares. As for A1 Grand Prix, would I like to see it back in some form? I would love to see it back. One day.