Sunday 19 May 2013
“It’s a bit like the proverbial iceberg,” said Alan Parry, the Sky Sports commentator, perched in the gantry at the Emirates Stadium in anticipation of another live Barclays Premier League encounter. “The match that everyone sees is just one third of the preparation that goes into it from everyone at Sky, and that includes the commentary team. A lot of preparation gets done before a game.”
Most armchair football fans appreciate the live football coverage offered by Sky Sports, but few recognise the lengths to which the broadcaster goes to provide such a smooth offering.
"It's like the proverbial iceberg. The match that everyone sees is just a third of the preparation that goes into it from everyone at Sky"
The logistics for the production of an outside broadcast (OB) are extraordinary, with up to 75 people involved behind the scenes, six lorries and almost 20 cameras. The hub of the operation lies far from Parry’s lookout point, in two inconspicuous vans in the stadium car park.
Inside these vans lie rows of desks manned by people with earpieces, microphones, computers and sheets of running orders sitting opposite a bank of two dozen screens showing endless camera angles of the pitch from various parts of the stadium.
The OB van is a hive of anticipation as, with the programme due to go live on air in 15 minutes the team news for tonight’s match between Arsenal and Everton is about to be confirmed. “Do you want any more on Moyes, pre-match,” says a man with headphones in the front row. “Wenger’s not doing his. Still a minute and a half…”
“Yeah, we can do a couple,” says the man seated behind me. Presenter David Jones suddenly appears on a TV screen, and when he chuckles at the remarks being made by the OB people about his tie, I realise he can hear what we are saying. “Yes, you can take two if need be,” reiterates the man with the headphones, “and another tie if you want”. Someone else yells, “Thirteen minutes.”
One man asks a succession of specific questions to Jones. He is Mark “Sparky” Scott, the live producer, who is making inquiries about the aforementioned commentator. Sparky maintains an air of calm throughout but you can tell he is thinking about 50 things at once.
“I’m involved with liaising with the reporters in arranging planning and organising in advance the content of the pre-match show,” he says. “We’re on air for 45 minutes beforehand so we’ll be following the plan on this running order, although it’s already gone out of the window because Arsene Wenger isn’t talking to us because he’s ill.”
“It’s just one of the changes you have to manage and react to,” he continues. “Say the goalposts fall down during the warm-up, I decide what we’re going to do next and tell the presentation director over there, Duncan East, who makes things happen. So I’m the one constantly saying what we’re doing, where we’re going next and then other people make that happen for me.”
East is charged with directing the 45 minutes of build-up, as well as the half-time and post-match chat. There is less than a quarter-of-an-hour to go before he’s going live yet he appears cool.
"You have to remain level-headed, keep moving on. If you start screaming and shouting everything snowballs" Duncan East
“Lots can go wrong,” he admits. “Whether it’s technical, failures like cameras or graphics or things we call mavs, which are the great big badges and whoosh sound effects that Sky are quite famous for. Any of that can go wrong because they’re mostly run by computers, so they can crash just like an iPhone can, although it doesn’t happen as much as it used to. And people make mistakes – it happens, especially in live TV – but the key is in live TV you can’t let it affect what’s happening. You have to remain level-headed, keep moving on. If you start screaming and shouting everything snowballs.”
As we’re talking the team news comes through and the graphics guys start imputing the players names into their computers. They’ve been here since 1pm, prepping the graphics, while the stats guys double-check the visuals and the formations to make sure all the players in the starting line-up are correct.
With so much going on it’s hard to focus on what everyone is saying and doing. Former Arsenal striker and Alan Smith wanders past saying his helloes and making a few wisecracks, a man in the front row, a PA called Richard keeps calling out random numbers, Jones occasionally appears on one of the screens introducing VT pieces and asking questions, to which either East, Sparky or the statistics man, Ollie Francis, provide an answer.
What comes across an outsider is the importance attributed to time. “Nine to go,” shouts Richard again, while Sparky elaborates on what happens during the show. “During the game it’s, ‘What are we going to talk about at half-time?’. ‘How do we tell the story of the half in three-and-a-half minutes?’ There could be two sendings-off a disallowed goal and an overhead kick. You have to be very organised in how you’re going to organise that. How many angles you’re going to show, how quickly you’re going to get through it, trying to dictate the pace of those sections.
“I’m always speaking to the presenter during the show just to remind him of things, steer him in the right direction. It might be questions, or topics, or ideas. Having said that we’ve got David Jones in there who’s one of our most experienced presenters and he can survive without too much hand-holding.”
Once the show is on air I am led up through the stadium to watch as Jones seamlessly delivers his links and conducts the match conversation with pundits Ian Wright and Graham Sharp.
"You’ve got to get in and out of VTs and ad breaks at the right time and be very clear about what you want to get out of each two or three-minute segment"
After kick-off, Jones explains his role. “We do a lot of preparation in terms of the stats and then as we get closer to the game you try and get a picture in your head of what the story is,” he says. “You have an idea of what the narrative is when you get here. In this case it’s easy because both teams are chasing a place in the Champions League.
“Some games are more difficult. There isn’t an obvious story so sometimes you have to create a narrative around it. In the build-up for 45 minutes tonight I see our role very much as giving people a reason to watch and also when we start our football conversations, to try and find areas for the viewer to find more interest in the game. So you’re talking about key tactical battles within it and hopefully that will help improve people’s enjoyment of what they see when the match gets under way.”
Talking football appears pretty straightforward, but doing so to strict time-constraints is where his skills are put to the test. “If they said ‘Go’ and start talking for 45 minutes then that would be easy, but when you’ve got to get in and out of VTs and ad breaks at the right time then you have to be very clear about what you want to get out of each two or three-minute segment. Whether that’s at the top of the programme to get a general picture of it, or whether you’re talking about a specific interview or interviewee, so I guess that’s where the challenges are really."
But any challenges are met with a minimum of fuss, like the news that they have to slice six minutes out of their half-time chat to accommodate a commercial requirement.
Despite this they still cover the key moments of the first half, including an incident involving Kevin Mirallas and Jack Wilshere, where the former squirts water on the Arsenal man as they head down the tunnel. It all happens in a split-second but the cameras catch it in time to run the incident when they return from the ad break. “I’d have waited until I got further down the tunnel before I did that,” quips Wright.
Meanwhile, Sparky is talking to touchline reporter Geoff Shreeves to get the lowdown on what happened. “Nothing in it,” says Shreeves. “They briefly squared up but then just trudged down to the changing rooms.”
The cameras miss nothing, but then that is no surprise given their quantity. “There are 19 cameras in place for this match,” explains Daniel Millward, the production manager. “But we mainly just use camera one, and sometimes two and three.”
So what about the rest? “Oh they’re used for replays.” I am led to a van next door where there are 20 people beavering away in front of more screens while manning a deck with nobs and flashing lights. They are all looking at a different angle of the match on their screen.
Suddenly a crunching challenge on Theo Walcott by Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar is captured from multiple angles. Within seconds the cries ring out from the workers. “Good one on 12. “Look at eight, Rich.” “Got it on four.”
The chief co-ordinator, who is watching the monitor with 24 different screens instantly selects the best replays, which have already been captured and are replaying before us. He informs the match director next door, who selects a montage of replays one after the other. The nation watches myriad shots of Walcott’s plight – and all this happens in the space of about five seconds.
With the match seemingly destined for a goalless draw Parry wants to know when the last goalless draw at the Emirates was. Fisher pores over the stat-pack he has spent the last few days compiling and reels off the answer in a flash. “Opening match of this season, Arsenal v Stoke,” he says. “The last time these two sides shared a goalless draw was 1 May 1993 – at Goodison Park,” he adds for good measure.
To describe the live match coverage as comprehensive does Sky a disservice, but it is fascinating to see how the jigsaw comes together. “It’s like a conundrum,” says Sparky, slightly vexed that Wenger has appeared for a post-match interview just after the credits have started to roll at the end of the show. Jones reappears on the screen to record another seamless link for the highlights programme, and Shreeves comes into the van for a quick review of how things went.
I am left with the impression that despite the various setbacks, another programme has gone swimmingly. The presenters and producers like a swan have come across as serene on the outside while, unbeknown to the viewer they have been paddling furiously beneath the surface. Unlike Arsenal and Everton’s Champions League quandary the conundrum that was covering this match has been solved.