Sky Sports Leads British Invasion at US Open
The Brits have come to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. For the first time, Sky Sports has an on-site presence at the US Open — and a large one, at that. The British broadcaster, which has covered the Open for the past 15 years, has a team of 56 on-site in New York, helping provide enhanced coverage to audiences back home.
“We always had our on-site commentary team here and an ENG crew feeding pieces back to London, but, this year, we thought it would be good to finally have an on-site presence,” explains Keith Lane, operations manager for Sky Sports. “It’s expensive for us to come here for this period of time, so we had to look at the budget and decide what we were trying to achieve.”
What Lane and his team decided on was a studio stage (in an enviable new location near the practice courts), two Panasonic P2 ENG crews, an Apple Final Cut Pro edit station, three EVS servers, and six cameras, all working out of NEP’s SS14 truck.
“We have a relationship with NEP when we’ve done golf in the U.S.,” Lane says, “and NEP Visions also has a big contract with us in the UK, so the tie-up has been great.”
A Choice of Six
Sky Sports’ interactive platform allows viewers to see the main channel — which Lane and his team program with the best match of the moment — or any of the five court feeds provided by international distribution.
“The very basic operation was to have a single edit, a stage, and, hopefully, a couple of camera positions to make it interesting, but the real benefit of being here is that we can get feeds from international distribution that really add to the color and flavor of what we’re doing,” Lane explains. “We also have drops at the President’s Entrance, a courtside position, a Flash interview position, and another one by the food-court area. We’ve really grown our [operations] since we’ve been here, and it’s going really well.”
Lane’s production team can use feeds from the jib camera, FlyCam, all five televised courts, and the press-conference room, courtesy of the international distribution.
The press room, in particular, has been a bonus to being on-site, Lane points out. “Whereas you were always waiting for someone to switch the press conference to our unilateral feed, which is always after the event, here, we can see it all the time and know what’s going on.”
In the evenings, Sky Sports is able to implement some cost savings. The full production team works until about 7 p.m. ET, which is midnight in the UK. Audience figures begin to drop off after midnight, so Lane maintains his commentary team for the night matches but sends the rest of the crew home.
“We route the commentary booth straight through the truck and out on transmission lines, so they can talk on the talkback service to London,” he explains. “We cover all through the night, but we don’t have the full setup here, and, editorially, that works fine. Of course, when there are big games on in the nighttime, we’ll stay on, but this gives us the flexibility not to have everyone on-site all the time.”
Because this was Sky Sports’ first year with a significant on-site presence, Lane chose to walk before his team would run. Moving forward, however, he is sure that the production will grow, both technically and editorially.
On the technical side, new for this year at Sky Sports is the use of the P2 storage-media format, as the network moves to a completely tapeless ENG system. Sky Sports has two ENG crews on-site using P2.
“This is our first outing with this production team in P2, and it’s going great,” Lane says. “The plan at Sky is to go to a completely tapeless system within the building in London, and P2 has been our chosen format to go to a tapeless ENG system as well. That change was made this year.”
An All-Fiber Odyssey
The Sky Sports studio set is in an exciting new location, elevated just beyond the practice courts, but a location that had never been used before presented some problems for the broadcaster.
“The challenge for us was really making sure that the limited amount of fiber that they could put in under the timescale was enough to do what we wanted, because we’ve got cameras, talkback, and router controls up there,” Lane says. “And we still want some redundancy left. We’re running completely on fiber at the set, so the challenge was in trying to make sure that we were comfortable in doing that.”
Two cameras and a 9-ft. jib provide spectacular views behind the commentators at that set, and word has traveled quickly about how great it looks.
“We’ve had a lot of enquiries,” Lane smiles. “Our colleagues at Fox Sports Australia, who are part of the News Corp. group, asked to come for a visit. But I don’t want to share it!”
A Common-Language Barrier
Lane has a crew of 56 on-site at the National Tennis Center, including many Americans who have worked with Sky Sports on stateside productions in the past.
“I wanted to get a lot of crew that was familiar with the way UK productions work, since we’re often divided by a common language,” Lane explains. “I end up speaking this American-English-technical dialect trying to interpret what they say and what we want. Having some key American personnel is really important, so, when the directors say what they want, they don’t have to ask what do they mean by that?”
Commentary for All of Europe
In addition to producing live tennis out of SS14, the network is able to record interviews from the studio set via the Sky Sports backup circuit.
“We’re doing live crosses back to London from our studio setup as well,” Lane says. “On top of that, we also take back into London the EBU [European Broadcasting Union] feeds of all the courts, so we are completely backed up. We also put our commentary onto the EBU circuit, so any European taker can have an English guide commentary. Although there’s an American world guide, they tend to take the English guide if possible.”
Sky Sports is using Level3 for all of its distribution, working off two 80-Mb fiber paths, one to the UK and one back from London, so that packages produced there can be fed from New York. Sky Sports is also using Genesis Networks to deliver its news service.