SFP Keeps Versus in the Peloton at the Tour de France

By Carolyn Braff

The 95th anniversary of the Tour de France will cover 3,500 kilometers and stop in 10 new towns, including two in Italy, creating a nightmare scenario for any broadcaster wishing to cover the three-week-long international event. Thanks to SFP’s RF expertise, however, nearly 200 international rights holders, including Versus in the U.S., can rest easy knowing that feeds from helicopters and motorcycles along all 21 stages of the event will be broadcast cleanly in 1080i HD.

“Each Tour de France is new,” explains Luc Geoffroy, CTO of the Euro Media Group, which owns SFP (Société Française de Production), a specialist in RF broadcasting. “It’s not the same road, not the same mountains, so we have to do a new survey each year. For us, the production process is the same but it’s also totally different. It gets harder each year even if the broadcast coverage is the same.”

After rolling out a wireless HD system for coverage of the 2007 edition of the race, SFP is making few changes to the coverage of this year’s event. In addition to equipping the five motorcycles and two helicopters that sported HD cameras last year, the race director’s car will also be outfitted with a pair of Thomson LDK 8000 HD cameras to provide a new angle into the action. SFP relies on its own LiveTools RF equipment, along with Nell encoders, to get the feed from France Télévisions’ OB truck to the broadcasters who relay it back home.

“The RF technology that the Tour de France employs is pretty spectacular,” explains Marty Ehrlich, vice president of production for Versus, the rights holder to the Tour de France in the U.S. “They have technology that enables multiple helicopters to beam up the RF signal. We take iso feeds of that, but just as importantly, we’re trying more and more to get inside the car with the team manager.”

The team manager’s car is the strategic epicenter of the race, but France’s restrictions on the number of concurrent RF frequencies make getting access to one of those cameras easier said than done.

“We’re in the midst of working out what dates we’ll have the cameras as opposed to what dates France Télévisions will have the cameras,” Ehrlich explains, noting that when the host broadcaster uses the cameras, the reporter in the car will be speaking only French. “Obviously we’d like to have it where there are English speaking team managers in the car, so we’re going to negotiate for those days.”

Outside broadcasters are not permitted to bring their own RF cameras into the peloton, but Versus will produce plenty of its own footage while in France.

“We will have our own motorcycle that will be following the sights and sounds of the tour, giving us our B Roll and things that enhance our show,” Ehrlich says. “We shoot a high degree of specialty using Panasonic VariCam in 720p HD with very fast shutter speeds to give it that film look. We transfer all of our B roll over in house to PAL, so we can be fully equipped when we’re live on site.”

Versus will air a standard definition feed of this year’s race, as its dedicated HD network is not set to roll out until December.

Each tour’s route forges a different path from the year before, so SFP had to find new reception points to complement all 3,500 km of this year’s course.

“All the stages are different,” Geoffroy says. “We have to find telescale points for reception and we spent six months organizing that because it’s a new route. For our production it’s the same challenge as last year, but we have to complete an entirely new survey for each new route.”

Links vehicles are staged at intermediate points along the course route to receive the RF feeds, relay and send the signal by satellite or digital microwave to France Télévisions’ OB truck at the finish line of each stage.

“We, ourselves, have one truck for the HD production, but it’s only a small truck,” Geoffroy explains. “If the big truck has a problem, we can provide the picture because we have all the RF pictures transmitted to us, so it’s easy for us to build a picture.”

The HFR 41 truck is the same receiving truck that SFP uses throughout the year to receive, route and organize the RF sources for all of the events the company covers.

For its part, Versus’ on-site production staff of 64 people relies on two 40-foot trucks for the show, both supplied by Woods Communications, a European-based facilities provider.

“One truck is a complete control room with EVS, full-on switching audio capability,” Ehrlich explains. “Adjacent to that is another 40-foot semi that houses two Avids and telescopes up a story where our studio exists. It can go over and above the compound, so depending on parking, if we’re in the Alps, hopefully we’ll have a view of the Alps.”

The dual expando mobile unit, stage and tender trucks come equipped with 5 Triax Sony BVP 500 cameras, all shooting in PAL; 9 Sony DVW500 and A500 VTRs; 3 Avid Adrenalines; a Thomson Xten DD switcher and a Clarity graphics machine, which relies on a technology supplier from New Zealand to convert the graphics from the host feed into Versus’ look.

Although Versus has no plans for extended multi-platform viewing of the 2008 race, expect to see some changes for the 2009 edition.

“At this point, this year, everything will remain the same,” Ehrlich says. “We’ve announced our five year renewal with the Tour, so come next year I think you’ll see a broader-based multi-platform capability.”

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