The in-car camera that allows NASCAR, Formula One, and Indy
Racing League fans to get closer than ever to the action is at the top of the
list of developments that fundamentally changed the way TV sports are produced
and also deliver new thrills for TV viewers.
The opportunity to be involved in such ground-breaking
achievements was something John Porter probably didn’t envision in 1974 when,
at age 26, he left his hometown of
Northern Ireland, for
Australia. Tired of the violence
and fighting, he was ready for a change. “I lived right in the middle of the
fighting,” he says, “and it was time to go off to a nice, sunny country.”
With a degree in electronics engineering from Queens
University in Belfast and experience working for Ulster TV, he landed a job at
Amalgamated Wireless Australia, an amalgamation of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph
Co. and the Australian Wireless Co.
A specialist in microwave products, Porter eventually made
the move back to TV, working for the Seven Network in
Sydney as an ENG development engineer.
“Electronic newsgathering was just started, and I mentioned that I had seen a
microwave system,” he recalls. “No one knew much about it, and it seemed to be
It was there in the ENG department that the first steps were
taken towards wireless systems that would transform TV sports coverage. Getting
pictures from helicopters for coverage of bush fires in the Outback was the
first step. The next, and first sports-related step, was putting camera operators
on boats and getting pictures off the yachts and back to shore.
“We would have cameramen on the yachts for the start of the
Sydney-to-Hobart race with normal ENG equipment,” says Porter. “An assistant
would point an antenna to a helicopter overhead.”
The first step related to auto racing was for the
Hardie-Ferodo 500, an endurance race in Bathurst. “For as long as man has been
racing cars, they have tried to get pictures out of them,” says Porter. “I was
given a budget and then set about how to do it. I also had found racing teams
that would be willing to work with me.”
Those early systems were very big. In fact, the biggest
challenge was not in transmitting the signals but in ensuring that, in the
event of an accident, the 70-pound systems didn’t become projectiles that would
kill the driver. That meant securing the system securely to the body and rollbars.
In 1980, kismet struck, in the form of a CBS production
executive who was in Australia for the Miss World program. Sitting in a hotel
room, the executive saw the in-car coverage of the Hardie-Ferodo 500 and
invited Porter and colleagues David Curtis and Peter Larsson to Daytona, FL.
“We saw horrible crash sequences of cars totally
demolished,” says Porter, “and, being engineers, we thought, yes, this is a
chance to build something.” For the next three years, CBS Sports had a contract
with Seven Network for development of systems suitable for NASCAR coverage.
Those first systems used a Thomson camera because it was a
two-part camera with a small head and detached back. That made it easier to
shrink the footprint of the system, a requirement to get NASCAR racing teams to
sign off on the additional weight.
In 1984, Porter, Curtis, and Larsson decided to stay in the
U.S., founded Broadcast Sports Technology, and started a business that
fulfilled the potential of wireless camera systems. America’s Cup races, the
Commonwealth Games, marathon coverage, and now golf coverage have all been
transformed, thanks to the legacy of Broadcast Sports Technology. Today, the
company, known as Broadcast Sports Inc. (BSI), continues to be run by Larsson.
In 1995, Porter and the staff at BSI had one of their top
thrills when NASA sought to have their systems installed in astronauts’ space
suits. “When NASA came to us in 1995, we had enough experience to say there was
no way we could comply with everything they needed us to do because it would
ruin us as a company,” says Porter. Lockheed Martin took on the contract and
assigned the project to BSI.
Weight was not the biggest issue, he says, thanks to the
weightless nature of space travel. But figuring out how to protect the system —
which had to withstand cosmic rays, the vibrations at liftoff, and temperature
swings of 200 degrees Celsius within 75 minutes — kept the team busy. “A team
of Lockheed Martin engineers advised us as to the environments,” says Porter,
“but it was our engineers that designed everything.”
Today, he is semi-retired, spending half of his time in
France and the other in Maryland working at Janteq, a company that designs
specialty microwave equipment.
“Cameras are going to get smaller, and technology will
become different, but people will always want to see the view of what the
driver or sportsman is experiencing,” says Porter. “Whether it’s diving off of
a cliff or racing a car, they want that experience.”