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Behind the TV screen: COVID-19 pandemic and radical changes in sports broadcast

The sports broadcast industry is one of the most far-reaching commercial activities in the world. The live coverage of sporting activities touches billions of people at the same time around the globe and also accounts for the major source of income for sporting teams, athletes, and professionals.

The rights for the Indian Premier League were acquired by Star India in 2018 for five years for a whopping Rs 16,347.5 crore. They also hold the International Cricket Council (ICC) broadcast rights from 2014 for which they paid reportedly Rs 11,880 crore for an eight-year cycle.

The rival channels in India, similarly, spend crores on cricket rights of different countries, football league rights, wrestling show rights, etc. The sports broadcaster invest billions of dollars/rupees in live sporting activities with the confidence of recouping more through advertisers and partnerships. However, there’s a lot that has changed in the sports broadcasting industry over the last year as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic jolted the daily life and operations across different facets of society in a year that had a packed sporting calendar. The result of it was the cancellation of live sporting events in a horde and restrictions upon the normal functioning of sports channels. The cancellation of events created gaping holes in scheduling forcing broadcasters to reimagine programming with archive content and showing matches reruns and when live sports did return, they had to face the challenge of producing remotely and distributing globally.

The whole industry underwent a transformational change in 2020 with innovations, ingenuity, and imagination laying the new foundation that would be the ‘new normal’ even for the future. Firstpost caught up with Sanjog Gupta, Head of Sports at Star India, the nation’s largest sports broadcaster, to get a sense of the metamorphosis that the industry has experienced as a result of the pandemic.

“There are four big changes that we saw with the way broadcast was either put together or was consumed right. There are behind the scene aspects and then there are on-screen aspects,” says Sanjog.

One of the most significant and radical changes has been the creation of the bio-secure bubble that allowed the Star Sports crew to function from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during the IPL. The model has been followed by all the broadcasters to function safely during the pandemic, however, with the situation now slowly inching towards normalcy, the industry is hopeful of returning to business as usual. The method of production, however, is something that has witnessed permanent reforms.

“The other three (changes) are permanent,” adds Sanjog. “One is remote production. So the concept of remote production is that you don’t need all your crew needs to be on-site to produce the broadcast. You have a combination of the on-site and centralized crew.”

“Much of the workload on the heavy lifting around the production is being done centrally. It allows us to have much more control over quality standards because we have access to those many more resources when you’re not on-site but are centralized. It brings in efficiency because you don’t have to have multiple crews traveling back and forth. It allows you to make experiences for consumers, which is beyond traditional broadcasts, that you wouldn’t be able to create from the stadium.”

“For example, we would have never been able to create as many feeds as we created. We need to have six commentary boxes because we had six feeds. The expansion of the product would not be possible without remote production, and that got accelerated during the pandemic.”

The other significant change was the “hub and spoke production model” where the production took place in a centralized manner but the crew members operated from home.

“The commentators for the Bangla feed (during IPL) didn’t even step into the studio. The producers, directors, all crew members, and the commentators were all logging in from their respective homes,” says the broadcaster.

“It also allowed us to do, for example, we will get Nasser Hussain to log in from London on Select Dugout. Or get Shane Warne to log in from Australia, or Graeme Smith to log in from South Africa. So it certainly changed the contours of what the commentary box looks like and it effectively became a virtual commentary box.”

The third major change has been about redesigning the viewing experience as stadiums were bereft of fans and enhancing fan engagement.

“The way the game itself was covered was very different in terms of the camera angles, in terms of the way that we were taking close-ups of players. Focus on technology which allows you to go deeper into the game, sensors off the bat, basically, what we were trying to do was we were trying to get closer to the individual,” says Sanjog.

“We allowed fans to interact with commentators live during the games or cheer for their favorite players by logging into the fanwall. The broadcast no longer encompasses just the stadium. We have the capability to bring in, anyone who is watching from anywhere in the world. And I think that’s a fundamental shift in the way that you design a broadcast.”

The other major area of impact of the pandemic was on the sports channel subscribers. Star Sports did experience “erosion” in the subscription after March as the country went into lockdown and the live sporting activities were called off, however, people started to return by August as the Premier League made a comeback and the channel continued with its archival-based programming.

“Through attractive archival-based and fresh programming on the sports channel, combined with Premier League return and other international sporting events that went ahead, we were actually able to retain a significant chunk of our subscribers,” reveals Sanjog. “As soon as the IPL got announced, a lot of subscribers who had left actually started returning, and not only did subscribers start returning, we saw new subscribers coming as well.”

“Our subscriber numbers have gone from where they were to now being 80 per cent of the total. So, eight out of pay tv homes in India, now have subscribed to Star Sports. These numbers in states like Tamil Nadu (90 per cent) and Andhra Pradesh/Telangana (82 per cent) are actually higher.”

The pandemic also drastically disturbed the revenue stream for the broadcaster, however, the IPL 2020 proved to be a major blessing. The cash-rich league set new records in TV viewership, bringing in a lot of advertising revenue. The 2020 edition of the league was watched for a cumulative of 383 billion minutes, a 24 per cent increase from the previous edition.

“Two things happened for IPL, one there was pent-up demand because the country had been in prolonged lockdown, consumption continues to grow and the other thing that happened was that advertisers didn’t have enough marquee properties to get their message out to millions of potential customers. We had more advertisers for this IPL than any IPL before this,” says Sanjog.

The production cost has also reduced as a result of remote working and centralized production. The COVID-19 health and safety protocols have led to an increase in the overall expenditure of Star Sports but that is expected to come down drastically as the situation normalises.

“By virtue of remote production, work from home production, and our investment in technology over the last few years we’ve seen increased efficiency and reduction in costs,” adds Sanjog. “There has been a temporary increase in the cost of production because of the bio-secure bubbles, rigorous testing, during IPL everyone was required to stay in hotels, so there has been a 10 to 15 per cent increase in the cost of production on account of health and safety aspects.”

Sanjog feels the biggest learning from the pandemic for a sports broadcaster is to continue constantly investing in technology to “improve models of production” and need to invest in providing newer viewing experience as behaviour of consumption changes very quickly and one mustn’t be slow enough to be left behind.

With 2020 behind, there’s renewed hope in the industry for larger adoption of sport as we get ready for a year packed with mega sporting events. Star Sports on its roster have ongoing India vs England cricket series, besides the Premier League, ISL, IPL 2021, World Test Championship, Wimbledon, T20 World Cup, and others.

“The 2021 calendar actually sets us up really well to continue to drive the adoption of sport in a big way. And this is why a lot of our thrust around the series (India vs England Test series) has been around the narrative of returning to India and then continuing with that narrative through the year because we believe this is the golden opportunity for us to not just have everyone who had subscribed already subscribed to Star Sports back on the platform, which we have, but also begins new subscribers by showing them the strength of the calendar we now have because events from 2020 have moved to 2021,” says Sanjog. Firstpost

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