Legends Behind the Lens: Peter Larsson
Through wireless cameras and microphones, the Aussie has been blowing sports television viewers' minds for decades
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Jason Dachman
Today, sports-TV viewers are accustomed to sitting in the driver’s seat with Jimmy Johnson as his No. 48 car tears around Daytona Motor Speedway at 200+ mph. Or peering over Tiger Woods’s shoulder as he crouches to read his final putt on the 18th green at Augusta National. Or sailing aboard Oracle Team USA’s yacht as it slices through the waves at the America’s Cup in pursuit of the Auld Mug.
Without the efforts of Peter Larsson, however, these mind-blowing perspectives would never have been available to viewers at home. The co-founder of Broadcast Sports Inc. (BSI) and the wireless-camera and -audio systems he has helped create over the past four decades have brought sports fans inside the action in ways never thought possible.
“To be able to create equipment and technology that actually change the way we watch a sport is very rare. And Peter Larsson [has accomplished that] in two sports in particular: NASCAR and golf,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Chairman and 2014 inductee Ken Aagaard, who has deployed BSI systems on countless CBS Sports productions. “Whether it’s from a camera inside the car or a handheld right behind the golfer, Peter Larsson has [pioneered] those technologies.”
The Early Days Down Under: Creating the Racecam
The Sydney native earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of New South Wales. To fulfill the three months of industrial experience required to complete his degree, he landed a job at Australian broadcaster Channel Seven and then was hired on full-time as an ENG engineer upon graduating.
By the late 1970s, Larsson had begun working with fellow Channel Seven engineers John Porter and Dave Curtis to develop wireless microwave camera systems to assist in the broadcaster’s coverage of the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race. The trio quickly realized that the RF system could be applied to auto-racing coverage and, in 1979, deployed the first-ever on-board Racecam on Peter Williamson’s car at the Bathurst 1000 in New South Wales. Though capturing an in-car perspective never seen before, the system weighed more than 70 lb. and offered only a locked-off shot. Over the next two years, Seven’s Racecam would decrease in size and add full pan-tilt-zoom capability.
Larsson, Porter, and Curtis’s big break came in fall 1980, when a CBS production executive on location Down Under covering the Miss World Bodybuilding Championship stumbled on Seven’s broadcast of the Hardie-Ferodo 500. Spotting the onboard camera system, he immediately saw it as a perfect tool for the Tiffany Network, which had presented the industry’s first flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500 a year earlier and was looking to expand its tools for live NASCAR coverage.
“We were very lucky at CBS,” says longtime CBS Sports director Bob Fishman. “Racing coverage was never the same after that. When you think of Peter Larsson, you think of a brilliant innovator, an engineer who helped design a camera system that changed auto-racing coverage by putting the viewer in the driver’s seat during a race — a place where viewers would like to be and few other sports have achieved.”
A NASCAR Star Is Born: CBS Discovers Its On-Board Camera
A year later, Larsson, Porter, and Curtis found themselves at the 1981 Daytona 500, deploying their on-board cameras inside the car of Richard Childress and Terry Labonte for CBS Sports’ live coverage. The in-car camera became a sensation two years later, treating viewers to a driver’s-seat perspective of Cale Yarborough’s winning race at the 1983 Daytona 500.
“Peter had the passion and vision to develop and implement a technology that took a sport from minor-league status to major-league status,” says veteran Fox Sports director Artie Kempner. “I don’t believe NASCAR would have attained the same level of prominence in American sports without the in-car camera. It took the viewer into the driver’s seat and created those wow moments that have been memorable for almost 40 years. And Peter’s passion and vision were behind that from the beginning.”
“Peter isn’t a toy guy. It’s never about him or his ideas; it’s always about the sport, the fan, and the show. He has always been a collaborative creator.” – Artie Kempner, Fox Sports director
Today, NASCAR coverage would be almost unrecognizable without on-board cameras. Nearly four decades after their debut, three or more on-board cameras (usually driver, roof, and bumper) are typically deployed on four to six cars for an average Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity race; even more are deployed on high-profile races.
“Peter deserves to be in the Hall of Fame because of not only his technical brilliance as an engineer but his desire to come up with new places to put cameras in racecars,” says Fishman. “He changed the way viewers watch the sport, but he never settled for just a single camera with a view. He would constantly come up with new places to put the cameras and improve the coverage year after year.”
Longtime NBC Sports auto-racing director Mike Wells adds, “He truly revolutionized the sport with on-board cameras. Our audience has no idea how much work goes into designing the camera, not to mention working with the race teams to get them installed. He is truly a pioneer in the industry.”
From Humble Beginnings: The Launch and Expansion of BST
After commuting from Australia to the States for NASCAR races at Daytona, Michigan, and Talladega from 1981 to 1983 (through a subcontract arrangement with Channel Seven), in fall 1983, the triad pooled their funds and moved permanently to the U.S. to launch their own company, Broadcast Sports Technologies (BST).
The fledgling BST operation was based in a five-bedroom house in Connecticut, with Larsson, Porter, and Curtis each claiming a bedroom and the other rooms serving as a lab, an office, and a basement machine shop.
“I’d love to say we had a plan, but we really didn’t,” jokes Larsson. “We were just young and dumb, and America seemed exciting. The travel was fun, and we were just having a good time working 15 hours a day creating new things. Somewhere along the line, it turned into a real business.”
By 1986, the company was expanding beyond its work with CBS Sports, which renewed its deal with BST that year without the exclusivity clause included in the original contract. That year, BST began providing on-board cameras for IndyCar races on ABC and NBC and for ESPN’s NASCAR coverage. With more systems deployed on more events, BST opened a fully staffed engineering facility and office in Hanover, MD.
Beyond the Racetrack: Sailing, Golf, X Games, and the Great Beyond
BST’s systems moved off the racetrack and onto the high seas in 1987, when its RF camera systems sailed aboard Dennis Conner’s catamaran at the 1987 America’s Cup at San Diego Yacht Club. The systems have been a fixture at every America’s Cup since.
In 1996, CBS Sports was looking to revamp its on-course–coverage strategy and was in search of a vendor to provide reliable wireless cameras, microphones, and comms without the need for massive — and unsightly — antenna towers. BST won the contract in a competitive vendor shootout and has been a staple on golf coverage for CBS and others for two decades.
“When we were [producing] golf and we needed to get away from those big high golf towers and get down to small antennas that we could put out on the course, it was Peter Larsson that came up with the solutions,” says Aagaard. “His creative ability to put RF technology together has moved the sport forward in a big way.”
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, BST continued to evolve its wireless systems while expanding to new properties like the Olympics, ESPN’s X Games, Formula 1, NHRA, American Le Mans Series, the Commonwealth Games, marathon coverage, presidential inaugurations, Pope tours, and even providing imaging systems that NASA installed in astronauts’ space suits.
1996 also marked another major transition for BST. The company was purchased by Wescam, a provider of gyro-stabilized aerial cameras, and changed its name to Broadcast Sports Inc. (BSI). In 2002, L3 Technologies acquired Wescam and BSI.
The 21st Century: Digital Transition and HD Revolution
BSI has continued to innovate since the turn of the century, transitioning from analog to digital systems in the mid 2000s and debuting its first HD wireless camera systems in 2007, as well as advancing its microphone and comms technologies.
“Back when we started, a couple of us could draw something on a cocktail napkin, and we could build it in the shop and then deploy it within a couple of days,” says Larsson. “Now everything is so complex that it’s a month-long cycle and it takes at least 10 people to develop anything. But, at the same time, it makes the equipment so much more bulletproof and easier to operate. The technology is constantly improving because we know it always has to be faster, better, and cheaper.”
In 2011, the company launched dual-path in-car systems for auto racing, allowing two transmission paths to be delivered from a single transmitter. Other auto-racing highlights over the past decade have included the launch of driver helmet cams for IndyCar and NASCAR, replacing the a helicopter repeater with a ground-based antenna system for car racing, and deployment of RF cameras in the pits.
Outside of auto racing, BSI has also debuted the landmark FollowCam system for Summer and Winter X Games, pylon cameras for NFL and college football, a wearable HD Ref Cam system, the launch of the ultra-reliable Blue Steel MIC1500 microphone line (which operates in the tightly controlled 1435 and 1525 MHz slice of spectrum), among other industry-altering technologies.
“Peter isn’t a toy guy,” says Kempner. “It’s never about him or his ideas; it’s always about the sport, the fan, and the show. He has always been a collaborative creator. He works with us at Fox; he works with NASCAR, the teams, and crew chiefs to constantly push the envelope. Roof cams, bumper cams, dashboard cams, side-panners, break cams, suspension cams, axle cams — there is not a place on the car that he and his BSI team have not explored to bring the fan closer to the action. Peter Larsson is a technical wizard with an editorial and production sense that turns ideas into tools for our broadcasts.”
Not Done Yet: Striving for Perfection and Confront New Challenges
Although Larsson is known to be one of the hardest workers in an industry filled with workhorses, he is also a devoted family man to Debbie, his wife of 27 years, and their three children: son Evan and daughters Kate and Natalie. He has also mentored countless individuals in the industry and is a beloved figure at production compounds across the globe.
“Peter Larsson is not just a great technical innovator; he’s a truly great person,” say Kempner. “He cares deeply about the people he works with and treats them as peers. He has been a mentor to so many — and not just to those in the BSI realm.”
Wells concurs: “I’m not sure what people remember about Larson more for: his legendary work or his good heart. For me, it’s both.”
In 2015, Slate Capital Group acquired BSI from L-3 Communications. The company currently employs more than 200 people at its 55,000-sq.-ft. facility in Hanover and operates 13 RF mobile units. BSI opened UK office in 2011, to help deal with increased demand for RF broadcast technology overseas and has also launched a joint venture with Gearhouse Broadcast in Australia. In total, BSI services more than 500 unique venues across the globe, including 200+ golf courses and 100+ auto-racing venues.
Despite 40 years in the business, the eight-time Emmy Award winner isn’t done yet — not by a long shot. He says he’s excited for BSI to confront the oncoming challenges presented by technologies like 1080p and 4K, as well as how to create new RF systems to confront the ongoing spectrum squeeze.
“The way I look at it, we’re about 50 companies all working under the one umbrella,” says Larsson. “Every single series we do has some different aspect to it, and we have to be able to serve all those [customers] flawlessly. The only thing that’s constant in this business is change, and we’re always making sure we’re ready for what’s coming next.”