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Arqiva will be at the heart of many broadcasters’ plans for this summer’s major sports events. TVB Europe's Jenny Priestley met the company’s commercial director, Chris Alner, to discuss how it will be supporting the industry over the coming months.

With fans still not fully back in stadiums – and some sports unable to welcome them back at all – the broadcast experience is even more important than ever this summer. Key to ensuring fans can watch every goal, rally, and gold medal win is Arqiva, which has a substantial transmission role to play for the UK’s public service broadcasters.  The company is working with both the BBC and ITV on Euro 2020, and will also be involved in the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon and Tokyo 2020. 

It’s a role that the company takes very seriously, explains Chris Alner, commercial director, broadcast and radio at Arqiva. “We’re working very closely with our broadcast partners because this year the experiences are broadly going to be broadcast-driven,” he explains. “We also work with other international broadcast partners for some of those flagship events, particularly on the Olympics, doing broadly similar things to what we’d be doing with the BBC for their broadcast viewing audiences, just in other territories. We’re at that point where there’s a bit of tingle around us as a business. It’s our own sense of making sure that we’re ready no matter what happens, because there could be changes quite late. 

“We always have a big intake of breath as we come into every summer, and right now we’re even more aware that we need to be prepared because things might need to change. It’s always important, but this year it’s even more so as everyone’s watching at home.” 

Arqiva’s role includes the transmission and distribution of TV and radio channels across the UK network. It’s also responsible for aggregating content as it arrives in the UK from overseas, and delivering feeds into other countries around the world for broadcasters who have rights to show those events. “That is the key part of what we will be doing,” stresses Alner. “I would expect that as time gets closer to the events, there will be additional late or last minute requests to ‘pick up’ some of the video feeds from overseas, and bring them back to the UK, and we’ll be able to do that using our fibre networks, the internet or a number of different methods to get them back into Arqiva.”

We want to be able to say to our customers, ‘you wish to achieve an outcome of bringing the content back to the UK, we have a number of different ways we can do this, which have different costs attached to them’.

Arqiva prides itself on being flexible and able to adapt to its client’s needs. “The scenario could easily arise where a broadcaster hasn’t thought there might be another way of using a feed that they initially weren’t planning on using,” says Alner. “We’ll be offering a number of different ways of achieving the same outcome. We want to be able to say to our customers, ‘you wish to achieve an outcome of bringing the content back to the UK, we have a number of different ways we can do this, which have different costs attached to them’. That enables them to work more flexibly with us, and can be provisioned a little bit later if they decide they want to make changes maybe a year out from the event. We speak with them to find the right way of doing what they want at the right time and at the right cost, and that’s because broadcasters can’t predict with as much certainty what it is that they’re going to need to be doing.”

One of the big advances in technology that maybe wasn’t in broadcasters’ initial planning for covering this summer’s smorgasbord of sport, is remote production. In a way, it’s been the industry’s saviour over the past 18 months. “I think we’ll see remote production used quite substantially and in a number of different ways,” states Alner. “I think we’ll see remote production, remote galleries, studios, graphics and overlays, all of those different parts that really enrich the viewing experience. 

“Therefore there’ll be huge amounts of additional connectivity between venues, stadiums and productions and we need to knit it all together. I also think that there’ll be more enhanced viewing experiences around sport as well, things like Watch Together where the fans can watch together when they’re not in the same location. I think that those remote digital techniques are only going to increase in usage throughout the rest of this summer.

 

I think people’s lives will be busy and packed and they’ll want to have as much fun as possible, including watching live sport on TV.

 

Of course, with countries slowly opening up across Europe, and it being summer, broadcasters might find it tough to keep viewers inside and glued to their screens. Alner believes after the sport-less summer last year, fans will be more than ready to tune in. “I think there’s pentup desire to watch it. There will be the pull for people to go out and have a drink, but I wouldn’t overlook the fact that it remains a communal experience to watch sports on a big screen. I actually don’t think the broadcasters are going to struggle for viewers. I think people’s lives will be busy and packed and they’ll want to have as much fun as possible, including watching live sport on TV.”

One thing that will be different – at least in terms of the Olympics – is that there won’t be as many fans in the stadiums. Sometimes, it’s the fans that help create an unexpected narrative around one of the events. Remember swimmer Chad Le Clos and his dad Bert at London 2012? How can broadcasters maintain the level of excitement that real life fans bring to the broadcast if they’re not on-site? “It’s going to be tricky isn’t it?” says Alner. “Being able to find those characters in and around crowds and the energy that a crowd gives you, when it’s not there it’s going to be problematic for broadcasters.”

He suggests that one option could be having enhanced audio inside the venues themselves. ‘I know that in France they’re actually broadcasting the crowd experience within the stadium itself for rugby matches. I think it’s a challenge for broadcasters to get back to that enhanced digital experience. They could try having groups of people watching and interacting digitally via Zoom and participating as if they were at the venue, but it’s not going to be an easy nut to crack.”

Is it the year to really push that broadcasting experience for the viewer because there’ll be so many people at home, or is it the year to just say right, this just needs to be done right?

Talking of new technologies, does Alner think broadcasters will be prepared to test out the likes of 5G, HDR, and 4K during this summer’s events or are sports rights too expensive to be guinea pigs? “5G might be likely in other markets as a form of distribution, depending on how advanced the 5G infrastructure is in each territory. 

“4K HDR again I think is territory dependent. It will depend what the host broadcasters produce in terms of feeds because there’s an increase in cost to distribute that globally. Is it the year to really push that broadcasting experience for the viewer because there’ll be so many people at home, or is it the year to just say right, this just needs to be done right? It’s maybe not the year to experiment because of the need to trust in the feed and know what you’re doing with it. So I’m hedging my bets a little bit there actually,” he laughs.

“I think we will see an increasing amount of 4K HDR penetration for sport as a whole because it’s a property that lends itself to sport probably better than anything else. One of the areas where it really works well for sport are those that take place at a fixed venue. If everything takes place at Wimbledon, for example, you know everything that you need to do from an infrastructure perspective, it’s easy to predict, and then it becomes a question of when not if.”

Finally, with this huge summer of sport to keep us all entertained, could events taking place later this year such as the Lions’ tour of South Africa and the Rugby League World Cup be impacted in terms of viewers who’ve had their fill of sport? “I think there are certain parts of those events where you’ve got a brand-loyal audience,” says Alner. “An event like the Rugby League World Cup will have a very specifically Rugby League audience. There are hotspots for that sport globally, obviously in the north of England and in New South Wales and Queensland in Australia. Sports that have those loyal fans won’t see a problem.

“The ‘will watch any kind of sport’ type of individual will probably just keep watching because they’ve been so starved of content and 2021 can become one of those golden years in which there is an Olympics, the Euros, the French Open, Wimbledon, all within the space of a few months. I think the general sports fans are just going to watch because it’s just going to be great. And then the dedicated fan of each property will just fill their boots as well!” 

 

This article originally appeared in TVB Europe - July 2021

 

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Chris Alner, Director, Commercial Broadcast & Radio

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